Training with Skagit Bay Search and Rescue

A typical recovery and rescue practice day is filled with scrambles and assisted and scoop rescues….maybe a bit of towing and swimmer rescues tossed in for good measure. This time it would be a bit different.

We’d be meeting up with Skagit Bay Search and Rescue (SBSAR) in Kiket Bay.

The need for training

The drive for this cross-training was the December 2021 Deception Pass Challenge. An unexpected increase in wind speed and a directional change sent conditions from acceptable prior to 0900 to arguably unacceptable by around 0930. 

The result was multiple capsizes. While the majority re-entered their crafts on their own or were assisted by other paddlers, the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office marine patrol unit and US Coast Guard were involved in a few rescues. 

SBSAR was on scene as part of the safety support for the race, but was not involved directly in rescues. 

SBSAR is a volunteer organization whose primary mission is providing search and rescue services on the sometimes dangerous waters of Skagit Bay, Deception Pass, the Swinomish Channel and the north fork of the Skagit River.

With two dedicated, responseready boats stationed in the South Basin/La Conner Marina and in the Shelter Bay Marina, they provide search and rescue support as well as escort and rescue boats for scheduled events like The Deception Pass Challenge.

Seeing a need for a working relationship between rescue crews and paddlers after the Deception Pass Challenge (Dec 2021), we reached out to some contacts a few weeks after the race. Four months later, those conversations and planning culminated in our first joint exercise.

Big boats, little boats

Graton (Gathright) and I met up with Bay One and Bay Six around 10:30 AM under sunny skies and in perfectly flat water with a knot or 2 of current. The plan was for only one of us to be in the water at a time allowing the other to manage both kayaks. Bay One would be the primary rescue boat for these scenarios with Bay Six providing safety support and allowing crews to be swapped so everyone could get practice opportunities. 

The goal for the day was to run through a few basic scenarios that would allow them a chance to see how best to rescue paddlers and for us to both see how we can assist them and learn what’s involved from our perspective. 

A big consideration in this training was that SBSAR’s crews are not permitted to get in the water to help. With that in mind, our first exercises centered around how best to get a paddler in the water onto their boat.

‘Landing’ the swimmer

The ladder and swim platform

The first few scenarios had Graton in the water playing the victim. He’d simulate a solo paddler who capsized and was unable to re-enter his kayak, but was otherwise uninjured and able to assist. The plan was for Bay One to approach and have Graton use the swim ladder off the stern on the port side, then repeat with Graton getting on the swim platform on the starboard side – which meant no ladder and having to avoid the cables running to the engines.

While clearly easier to use the ladder, both rescues were quick and worked well. Ideally, SBSAR would approach to allow the swimmer to access the ladder, but depending on conditions and their approach, rescues need to be practiced from both sides – no different than us being able to scramble or perform assisted rescues from either side or any orientation.

Jason’s Cradle ®

Bay One, on its starboard side has a Jason’s Cradle ® installed and we moved into testing its deployment and ways to use it.

Jason’s Cradle ® is similar to a scramble net made of cloth webbing, but utilizes stiffened batts. It’s deployed over the gunnel and allows the retrieval of casualties who are unable to assist themselves due to injury, or high freeboard. 

It’s an amazing rescue aid, but using it does take practice. It needs to be deployed properly, stowed properly for the next use, and there are a variety of ways it can be used – and we tested several of those.

The first rescue had Graton, still playing the able-bodied victim, using it as a ladder. This proved a bit easier and potentially safer than getting on the swim deck climbing over the engine cables, but a bit slower to getting him on the deck. 

A big advantage to using the Jason’s Cradle® was that it allowed 2 crew members to assist Graton. In conditions, it would make for a safer rescue with two sets of hands able to get the swimmer on board without risks of getting caught in cables or squeezing up between the stern deck and engines on the swim platform. 

Graton Gathright taking a break on the bow of Skagit Bay Search and Rescue vehicle Bay One.

Advanced scenarios

After a bit of a break, we discussed the types of injuries sea kayakers would likely experience and how those would affect getting one of us on board. On the water, dislocated shoulders and other shoulder injuries are the big thing. Motion-sickness is another and there is the possibility for something more severe – as in the incident in Casco Bay in August 2021 where one paddler was slammed into the rocks suffering extensive injuries to ribs, shoulder, and lung.

The shoulder injury

To help isolate and prevent use of one arm, once in the water, Graton tucked one hand into his PFD. With only one arm, his ability to help get himself into a position to be rescued was immediately evident. The SBSAR crew worked through the best way to approach and get him out of the water. Again, the ladder on the swim platform was an easy option. Once in position, Graton could grab the ladder and the crew was able to assist by grabbing his PFD or Drysuit allowing him to climb on board.

Switching to the other side of the platform, with no ladder access, it became a bit more challenging. Without a foothold, Graton needed more assistance to get onto the boat and while it went smoothly, we could see the possibility of aggravating the injury. That made the swim platform itself an option, but not the best one.

Next up was using the Jason’s Cradle ®. While deploying it takes an additional minute or two and the SBSAR crew needed to make sure Graton was out of the way during deployment, it proved to be the best solution. It provided and an easy hand hold AND the cradle sitting well below the waterline, provided easy access for Graton to use it as a ladder. The crew merely had to hold onto his ‘injured’ side for support.

The Incapacitated swimmer

As the Casco Bay incident showed, there is the need to be able to get a swimmer on board when they simply cannot do sio under their own power. The Jason’s Cradle® is designed, in part, for this scenario. But knowing how to use it and not causing further injury still needed to be practiced (learned).

Testing the Cradle

We started with Graton in the water floating on his back as if he capsized and couldn’t get back to (or into) his kayak. Graton would not assist in any way during this exercise

Bay One heading off and back to simulate their approach. Once in position the Jason’s Cradl ® was deployed and they proceeded to test ways to float Graton into it, feet first. That proved a bit challenging. (It’s harder than you think!) They were able to guide him in using a modified fishing gaff with a blunt ‘hook’ – I kept picturing a scene from offshore tuna fishing – to position Graton. Once in the Cradle, they could slowly roll him up and onto the deck.

This is where it gets tricky and more practice will be needed. The Cradle wraps snuggly. If the victim’s arms are at risk of injury under the cradle’s pressure. Rolling up the victim also meant their head was at risk for hitting the boat (we did have helmets on). Graton was able to provide feedback and adjust position to see what was the safest way to get him on board, but this is something that will need more practice.

Adding the backboard

The second half of this rescue scenario was getting him on a backboard. This was more challenging, in part due to the design of the rescue boat. The process wasn’t as smooth as we hoped, but it did work. If there was real concern for a back injury, we looked at the option of dropping the backboard into the water within the cradle, floating Graton onto it, then using the cradle to ‘cinch’ him to the board. 

At this point, rolling him up was a problem and the best solution would be to slowly head back with him in the cradle off the side of the boat or wait for support. While not ideal, we could get him immobilized and out of the cold Puget Sound water and a chance to start warming him if needed.

Fortunately, this is an unlikely scenario, but playing in and around rocks does mean it’s possible.

The incapacitated paddler

While the previous exercise focused on someone in the water and incapitated, we wanted to see if SBSAR personnel could get a paddler out of their kayak unassisted. This is a rare thing, but still, could happen and we were testing so….

We chose to test two aspects with this rescue:

  1. The crew would need to arrive not knowing what happened, relying on Graton (I got to play victim for this one), informing them of the situation.
  2. They’d need to figure out what happened AND devise a way to get me on board. 

The scenario had me unable to use the right side of my body and unable to speak. While testing the crew in figuring out what was wrong with me (let the jokes commence), the real point was to see if they could extract me from my kayak. 

As Bay One approached, I was rafted up with Graton in a contact tow. My skirt was still on, and I was unable to assist in any way. On scene it took less than a minute for them to determine a stroke event as the cause. With that, and knowing there was a limited time-frame to get me the medication needed to minimize the effects of the stroke, they worked quickly to come up with a plan.

Graton popped my spray skirt off and helped position my kayak between the rescue crew and his kayak adding stability. The SBSAR crew were able to position themselves and smoothly lift me right out of the cockpit and onto their deck. I was impressed…..and that was also the first time…hopefully the last as well….that I was forcibly removed from my kayak!

The big take-aways:

  • Response time will be longer than you’d think! While SBSAR can get called out to rescue a kayaker in distress, they generally provide support at local events. That means they are already on scene. IF we placed a Mayday call, their response time to our practice location would have been 45 minutes. Think about that for a minute. Even dressed properly, that’s likely the full limit of our immersion gear in keeping us warm enough.
  • SBSAR personnel CANNOT get in the water. If they cannot get us on-board (Bay Six is NOT equipped with a Jason’s Cradle®), we will need to be an active participant in the rescue – as either the victim or another paddler on the water
  • It was hard for them to compensate for our drift. On approach with Graton as an incapacitated swimmer, he found himself up against the hull off the bow of Bay One. That means they need to be slower and more precise on approach – and as swimmers, we need to be in a ‘tucked’ position if possible.
  • We need to be active participants in the rescue to as great an extent as we can. That either means as the victim or those in the group. Everything was a coordinated effort.
  • The rescue crew is in charge. Our role is to provide them the critical information when they reach us, then let them determine how the rescue goes. Let them ask for the help they need and how to provide it. Through training like this, the goal is that the crew unders what they need to do and how we can help them do it.
  • The Jason’s Cradle® takes time to deploy and it’s a bit harder to maneuver the boat with it in the water, but it’s highly effective and can be used to transport a kayak if traveling at just a few knots, but….
  • SBSAR will NOT bring a kayak or SUP on board unless they have time. If there is any doubt about how fast they need to get us ashore, your kayak or paddle board will be left behind. I want to stress this as many of us have expensive kayaks. Unless those in your group can tow your kayak or SUP back to shore, accept that it’s going to be left.

Other notes of interest

  • Visibility – this wasn’t part of the core training, but with me arriving at our meeting point before Graton, I was able to discuss the concept. Color helps but they aren’t looking for color. They are looking for movement. The regular movement of a paddle during a stroke or being waved is visible sooner and from further out, even with binoculars, than the kayak itself (regardless of color).
  • SBSAR had a nifty thermal imaging device. Once close enough, they could use it to look for ‘hotspots’ in locating someone in the water. That makes immersion gear even more valuable. The longer we can retain body heat, the greater the chance we have of being found.

A kayaker won’t always be able to assist and while we trained with an experienced SAR team, what we learned will help us manage a rescue with ANY power boater coming to our aid. 

Going forward, the next step is to move these exercises into conditions. We plan to regroup and take the practice exercises into Deception Pass where the need for these skills is critical. We’ve also discussed running these practice sessions multiple times each year to keep skills sharp and train new personnel.

My hope is to see this become a regular thing with other local SAR teams.

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