Kayaking New Waters: More Lessons (and Failures)

The day was supposed to be spent in Deception Pass with NSSKA. I signed up for a new to the group/new to kayaking trip. Having not heard back, I followed up with the trip lead. The email response received, while not directly stating it, made it clear I was intentionally omitted based on my experience level. This was a beginner only class.

Though the current in the Pass would be well below what I have paddled previously (5.5 to 7.8 knot ebbs) and can handle, any chance to learn from a new instructor is welcome. Everyone has a teaching style, personal experiences, and tips. As I improve my skills and work towards my instructor certification, I have found that variety to be invaluable. The practice alone, under a different instructor, was still a learning opportunity – and I’m not one to turn that down.

Beyond the educational aspect, it rarely hurts to have another experienced paddler in the group. Things can and do go wrong. 

A bit stunned as I never expected to be denied for having too much experience, it worked in my favor. A last minute trip was posted in our ad-hoc group of Puget Sound Kayakers – a short day trip in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. 

And I still received new lessons, and from a new instructor.

Freshwater Bay

Freshwater Bay sits to the west of Port Angeles on the Strait of Juan De Fuca. Instead of heading north Saturday morning, I was southbound. Well, south and westbound.

It was going to be sunny and warm – the hottest day of the summer in the upper 80’s – not my favorite weather for kayaking. I don’t like being cold when paddling, but hot is worse. I still prefer overcast and light rain best.

This would be more ‘new water’ for me.

The last time in the Strait was on the 4th leg of the H2O Project. I was looking forward to exploring. The coast is beautiful and rugged. With winds under 8 knots and a small tidal exchange, we’d be able to play around the rocks and explore, looking for caves and marine life. The last thing I expected was to go swimming.

Low tide at launch, the water was glass-like in the bay. A light breeze met us as we entered the Strait. We turned and headed west. Still working on paddle skills and a novice at rock gardening, I opted to stay further out than most of our group of 6. That left me, more often than not, dealing with the thick kelp.

Tired of dealing with it and a desire to work on my skills, it wasn’t long before I moved inside, working on my bow rudder and draw strokes to move through the shallows between and against the rocks.

This was only the second time paddling with Jason

The first was a short paddle out of the Tacoma waterfront (where I rather awkwardly walked off the back of the floating dock after pulling my kayak out of the way) – not the best first impression!

Jason is an accomplished L5 ACA Advanced Open Water Coastal Kayak Instructor. His skills are impressive and I’ve spent a good deal of time watching his YouTube videos – part to learn, part for inspiration.

Jason is quiet and friendly. I have seen him working with new paddlers, so it’s hard to explain why I felt a bit intimidated being on the water with him.

Maybe it’s that bit of intimidation that drove me in deciding to follow him through that gap.

The lessons

We may have been a mile into the paddle. Eager to push myself, to prove to myself I can handle more, and knowing at 51 if I don’t do it now, I never will, I made the decision to follow Jason.

Between us was Greg. Jason went through the gap between a large rock and the cliff wall. He made it look easy, riding the flow of water through the gap. Greg opted to turn to the outside. Given my position, I was committed, whether I wanted to be or not.

Lesson one – reading the water

I have had practice reading currents and features in open water. Along rocky shores was a different story. I knew how the water was breaking, it’s movement in the same line as the gap, not directly crossing it. The latter would have shoved me squarely into the wall. Had that been the case, I would have not attempted following Jason. 

What I didn’t know was how or where the water would break. The wall was to my left with a larger rock to my right and a smaller one in the middle. Those rocks were only a foot to a foot and a half above the water’s surface. Behind it was deeper water. Jason explained that as the wave set comes in, the water would stand up on those rocks creating a hazard between them and the wall – right where I was positioned. 

Knowing the features in front of me, I would have been able to look out and watch the sets approach. I could make a decision to back out and wait for a smaller wave set, or know, in his words, that I ‘would pay the price’.

Lesson two – follow the blade (more reminder, than lesson!)

My roll failed. While it was flawless in the current at Deception Pass a few months back, it failed me here. 

My head came up too soon. I knew it. It was an immediate response to why it failed when Barry asked. The video confirmed it. I was looking down the bow as I came up, the kayak completely on its edge. Had I followed the blade, the roll would have worked.  

I knew I was in the rocks. Rather than attempt a second roll, I exited.

The roll failed - staring down the bow of the Whisky 16 sea kayak, not following the blade

The rescue

Barry watched the events unfold. He was right there as I surfaced.

The protocol was simple – get away from the rocks. There is always a risk of both being pushed into the rocks. Getting back into the kayak is safer away from them. I grabbed the deck line near his bow in my left hand, the bow of my kayak with my right. Barry back-paddled to clear the rocks and once out far enough, I rolled my boat over making it easier to tow. Jason assisted by pushing Barry from the side to help get out of the kelp, follow by a classic T-rescue. The entire rescue, from wet-exit to my ass back in the cockpit, took under 3 minutes. 

Still, it could have been better. In dangerous conditions or with a loaded kayak, we skip the step of pulling the kayak across the deck to empty it. Changing our mind above emptying the kayak cost us a few seconds.

Breaking down the rescue

And more lessons

Barry noted that I should have grabbed his deck line just off the bow, my other hand on the front of my boat. I was closer to the front of his cockpit. That made it harder for him to pull me out from the rocks. Worse for balance and in the way of his stroke.

It isn’t easy to paddle backwards away from the cliff with the surf. Barry was solely focused on me at that moment. While it was Jason who helped push Barry and myself further out, he mentioned that the better choice would have been a short tow from behind with the second rescuer using a forward stroke to pull us. Easier than pushing and didn’t require another kayak inside along the rock wall.

The final point – that the trip leader should have been the point person directing as needed. This one becomes especially important in less experienced groups where either no one rushed in to help or everyone does. 

Real-world scenarios have too many variables. Conditions, the skill set of each paddler – even how tired a paddler is – can impact the rescue. Ever situation is a bit different. The goal, for me, in routine practice, is to know the drill. What to do and how to do it. There is still the need to remember that it’s sometimes necessary to adapt to the environment.

Lunch and the return to Freshwater Bay

We paddled for another mile or so before finding a lunch spot – somewhere we’d not be at risk from the rising tide. After a leisurely stop, we headed back.

The features were a bit different now, changed by deeper water from the flood tide.

The swim didn’t have me shying away from the rocks. I continued to play against them, working on my boat control. We had a lesson in using the waves to shoot gaps (thank you, Jason). And then it was back to my swimming hole.

This time the swells were larger. The tidal change and increased water depth near the wall, though, meant they weren’t breaking on the rocks as they did earlier. I had a chance to head through, albeit in the opposite direction, using what I had learned a few minutes prior. Not necessarily redemption, but it still felt good.  

Back in the bay, it was a bit of balance practice and playtime before loading boats and gear for the trip home. 

Final thoughts

It was an amazing day. Any day on the water with friends is, but this one was paddling in new waters, along a beautiful coastline, and came with the adventure I seek. While I ended up swimming after a failed roll, I ended the day feeling good about the outcome. Days later, as I continue to play out the events in my head, that feeling has grown stronger. 

I failed pushing myself. I could have opted out and didn’t. I did what I set out to do – to test/push myself and improve at something I have come to love. I am taking risks and learning the hard way. It’s making me a better sea kayaker. 

My roll failed, but in conditions my first instinct wasn’t to exit. That reinforced the experience I had months prior in Deception Pass. Unlike then, which was purely instinctual – I have no recollection of what I was thinking, I had the time to think through the roll. Underwater I was able to compose myself, set up, and go through the roll. Looking at the video, it was beyond clear my head coming up first was my mistake. With the kayak fully on its edge, there is no doubt had my head followed my blade, I would have completed the roll and gotten through that gap. Combined, everything reinforces that I’m advancing my skills. It reinforces, with a bit more practice I can handle rougher conditions.

I learned more valuable lessons. I have some experience now with reading water in, and around, the rocks. I have more practical rescue scenario experience. 

Learning by the seat of your pants….

The points made about the rescue will stay with me. They’ll keep myself and others safer on the water. There was value in that rescue. 

More than ever, I am looking forward to pushing my limits and the next challenge.     

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