Near Tragedy on Calm Water

No one expected a near tragedy.

The plan was to cross from the Des Moines Marina to the Point Robinson lighthouse on Murray Island for a short 2 nautical mile evening paddle. We’d take a quick break to check out one of the Cascadia Marine Trail campsites (I’d camp at a couple on our H20 paddle), then head back. 

Tragedy on Calm Water. Kayaking from Des Moines Marina to Point Robinson Lighthouse

Conditions couldn’t have been more ideal

A slight north wind, setting out on slack with minimal tide shift, and sun. The water was calm. There was an occasional ripple across the surface as we passed the break wall protecting the marina. We were headed out across the shipping channel. There wasn’t another boat, commercial or pleasure, visible. We settled into a comfortable stroke rate, striking up conversation between the 5 kayaks. A potential tragedy, or even a hint of danger, was no where in our minds.

Tragedy on Calm Water. kayaking out of the Des Moines Marina

Prior to launch, I spoke with the trip leaders about the number of kayakers who would be going. The roster included 9. Three ultimately couldn’t make the time and cancelled. The 4th, a very inexperienced kayaker, was asked not to join us. While knowing conditions would be within their ability to handle, things can change on the water. A mistake in the shipping channel could escalate quickly. Not being able to clear the shipping channel if we encountered traffic could end in tragedy.

About one-third of the way across, the trip leader on my right caught site of the container ship. She was on her way out and now between Murray Island and Poverty Bay. We located the buoy marking mid-channel. We knew the ship had to keep the buoy to her left and come around it before entering the channel. With a sense of urgency we picked up the stroke rate. We reached mid-channel, the marker now to our left with the ship still a distance from it. We continued to maintain our stroke rate. The container ship was suddenly on the marker. A few more paddle strokes and she was coming around it. We knew she’d pass behind us, yet our pace quickened. Being hit was no longer the concern.

Progress, unaware of the looming danger

Now in the channel, the captain was free to push the throttle. One long bast of the horn told us he did. We also knew he’d turn slightly to port. While knowing we were well clear of her bow, we knew she would be very close. She wouldn’t hit use, but at her pace, she’d kick out a powerful wake, and not just one. to play in as a kid off the Jersey shore.

We’d get one off the bow, then the stern in a series of equally spaced waves. One of the co-leaders asked if anyone wanted to surf them, as if that was even a choice. There would be no way to avoid them. There would be no way to know how many there would be. We knew the ship was moving fast. The wake off the stern would be moving at the same rate. Given the size of the ship, it wasn’t just the speed of the waves we’d deal with, it was their height.

In a matter of minutes they’d be on us. Two sets of them.

I was up front with one other paddler. The remaining three trailed a bit. I edged my kayak to the left as the ship crossed behind us to get a visual on the 3 and the wake. What I saw reminded me of the waves I used to play in as a kid off the Jersey shore.

2-3 feet, white capped, and curled

No one in the group was proficient at surfing them. I have had a bit of practice and knew the Whisky 16 I was paddling was meant for this, but this was the skiing equivalent of going from a few runs on the bunny slope to the black diamond. Well beyond my skill set.

Two of the three in the trailing group opted to head into the wake, bow first. The third kept them at her stern. I had already decided I’d keep them on my stern. I was confident I could handle them and would get a push from them. Then the paddler to my right made a comment. I knew he was getting concerned. Knowing we couldn’t outrun them, I was sure we could add some distance before the waves reached us. That would allow us to miss the breaking waves. 

It was a risky decision. It meant splitting the group. If something went wrong, we’d have less help. If I capsized, could he help rescue me? Yet, at that moment, my mind was on his mental state. I know from experience that being uncomfortable or scared on the water was not a good state. I picked up my pace and kept him focused on paddling. I maintained conversation. Then the waves hit.

The tiny ship was tossed

Rather than surf them, we allowed them to roll under us. We’d feel their push, the kayaks climbing as the face of the wave pushed under the stern, falling back as it passed beneath the bow. As it did, the stern would kick out, turning the kayak to the left requiring us to edge to the left and sweep to rotate the bow back to the right before the next wave hit. 

Normally when surfing, we’d use a stern rudder stroke to steer and keep the wave at our back while on the face of it. In a surf landing, we’d paddle on the back of the wave to avoid them breaking on us hit shore. My plan now was to allow them to roll under us, controlling the kayak with edging and those short sweep strokes to keep our sterns to the waves. Without the necessary experience, and a paddler who was a bit nervous and less equipped, it was the smartest option. 

At one point, I remember him saying he was done with the waves, like a child says he’s done with an amusement park ride part way through. He was being pushed further off to my right creating more distance between us. Unable to move toward my line, I paddled to him. As I got close, two more large waves hit, the first dropped me broadside to the next. I was able to recover and correct. A few more and the ride ended.

Now that we were clear and my partner was OK, I slowed and turned back to find the other three. I didn’t want to make my partner hang, but regrouping now was the priority. I wanted us to be in a position to reach them quickly if needed.

They were some distance back

My initial thought when I saw them was that they had caught the largest waves, with the wake getting out in front of them. While we rode them for some time getting a push towards the shore, they didn’t. I later learned, as we landed at the lighthouse, one of the leaders, the one who first spotted the ship, was turned coming off the 3rd large wave face, the fourth crashing on her before she could correct. She capsized. The other leader was right there as she came out of her boat, but it took 3 attempts to get her back in the kayak. 

The rest of the paddle was uneventful, with even better conditions for the return leg, but we all knew how it could have ended.


Why did we avoid a tragedy?

  • Aside from wearing a PFD, our co-leader was dressed for immersion. Had she not, hypothermia would have been a real danger (water temps average 50 year round here). Once back in her boat, she still needed to paddle a short distance to shore. Could she have if she was wet and cold? Were the other two with her capable of a rafted tow? Could they have started to warm her core temperature on the water?

    The likelihood of a capsize in launch conditions was highly unlikely, though she still wore her drysuit – you dress for immersion.
  • A decision to have a kayaker not join us. I had been on a paddle with her two weeks prior with the same leaders. She was capable, but not a strong paddler. It is not out of the realm of possibility that she couldn’t have cleared the shipping channel fast enough to avoid a collision. There is no doubt in the waves that we would have been rescuing her. Our co-leader made a very sound decision which likely averted a tragedy.

Why did things go so wrong?

  • Failure to monitor for traffic in shipping channel. I will take some blame here. Four of us had VHF radios. At least one of us should have been monitoring channel 14 for traffic. We would have known she’d be on us sooner than expected and could have communicated with the captain.

    Instead, we were all on channel 69 for communication within the group. While that normally falls on the trip leader, I know better. I did my own check on the tides, current, wind, and weather. Not monitoring the channel was a mistake.

    Footnote: We knew we were going to be crossing a commercial shipping channel and expected the encounter, or at least knew it was likely for one. This is one reason the 6th paddler didn’t join us. This was about being in communication with others on the water.
  • Rescue practice. It had been more than a year since the co-leaders had done any assisted rescue practice. I have no idea as to the ability of the other two kayakers with us. There should have been a discussion as a condition of going, or at the very least, at launch. Not knowing the proficiency of the others on the water is risky, given we have to be able to count on them.

    I have done multiple types of rescue practices over the past 2 months in numerous conditions, including in a 5.5 knot ebb in Deception Pass. What had others done?

    We headed out on an open water paddle without a critical skill capable of being performed in an emergency situation (at least in the case of two).
  • We split the group. Remaining as a group, especially on open water paddles, is a core rule. There is safety in numbers. We are more visible and there are more hands available if something happens. I will stand by my decision to separate, that doing so felt the best way to keep another paddler safe, but it could have gone wrong. It’s why solo padding is discouraged and why I prefer the Rule of 3 on open water – at least 3 paddlers. 

A reminder

While there was no tragedy in this case, things could have gone very different if even the slightest variable changed. It should serve as a stark reminder that

Teaching skills and promoting safety

It’s been more than 2 years since this incident. I have read too many more than pushed my decision to become a certified instructor. I had decided some time back that my core goal for coaching and why I wanted to coach – was to help get others on the water with confidence and with the prerequisite safety training. I want to do what I can to limit risk and prepare others for when the inevitable happens.  At the same time, I continue to build on my skills to be able to teach more advanced paddlers, but more to ensure I can provide support when needed.

I will continue to document my trips and learning. It all takes time and gear (plus food, campsite fees, ground transportation, etc). If you are an adventure seeker, living vicariously through my kayaking, or enjoyed reading, feel free to contribute to my gear collection (and expenses). These days, that gear is for student use and to ensure that others on trips I lead or join have the proper safety items – this is an expensive sport and I want to make it easier for others to get on the water and get the training they need.

If you have gear you’d like reviewed or willing to donate and/or interested in sponsoring my journey, links, mentions, and reviews, please reach out to me.

If you are interested in building your skills set, I offer s, customized for your needs and offered on your schedule. While based in WA, I will happily travel outside my local area. Safety is that important to me.

2 replies
  1. Moulton Avery
    Moulton Avery says:

    Thank you for writing this great and candid article, Robert. Nothing bad happened, but as we both know, and as you pointed out, it could have been a different story. Lots of lessons to be learned, and you hit all of them. This is the kind of honest analysis that helps us to build a strong safety culture in paddlesports.

    • Robert Nissenbaum
      Robert Nissenbaum says:

      I appreciate the comments. This trip was the first one that scared me a bit. I knew we’d be on the water and close when the ship approached. I knew it would be on us quick….but there was still enough time to ponder. Was my skill set good enough to handle it? How should I handle it? How the hell did this happen?

      I could blame the trip leads, but this was as much my fault. More, it was a wake up call and big learning lesson. I am not always the most experienced paddler on the water, but I like to think I am the most aware and prepared (safety-wise).


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