Rough Water Rescues

How Situational Awareness, Positioning, Safety and Boat Handling Combine for Effective Leadership

[caption id="attachment_8363" align="alignright" width="300"] The awesome power of Lake Superior was on display during last October's Gales Storm Gathering. Photo Credit Alan Lukala.[/caption]

I recently had the pleasure to be a co-host and coach for The Gales Storm Gathering.“The Gales” is a rough water sea kayak symposium held at different locations (each year) on the Great Lakes.  This year’s event was held at Rock Island Lodgeon the shores of Lake Superior in beautiful Wawa, Ontario. The Gales is held in mid-October to increase the chances of bumpy water – swell and surf – and all the stars were aligned as steady (sometimes violent) west winds blew for a week!  While we had all hoped for “conditions” in which to coach, practice and play; on this weekend we had an overabundance and were seeking more sheltered areas for suitable learning environments for our students. (To help paint the picture – we were hoping for Class II-III and got Class V!) Overall – a successful event. A weekend of great learning opportunities from amazing coaches, with students who were “game”. Most importantly, everyone was safe. Sea kayak surfing, long boats in current, rock gardening, and rough water journeys were just a few of the courses that went off during the weekend.  There were even a couple “coach only” sessions in which a few of us ventured out to get some work (or get worked) in gale force winds and massive surf.

[caption id="attachment_8344" align="alignleft" width="300"] Headed out for a play![/caption]

When students are learning in a challenging environment - there are bound to be rescues. When expert paddlers push themselves beyond the limit into extreme conditions – there are bound to be rescues. I had the opportunity to be part of both of these situations over the weekend during rescues that reminded me of what it takes to be an effective rescuer or leader.   Whether you are in a position of leadership or simply out paddling with your mates – consider four different factors to be key to successful rescues.


(1) Situational Awareness What are the real risks? A good risk assessment tool was created by my friends at Body, Boat, Blade. What are the risks posed by the factors of environment (weather, water and land), the paddlers (skills, health or psyche), or equipment (lack thereof or quality)?  Are these factors holding steady, increasing or decreasing?

(2) Positioning

[caption id="attachment_8365" align="alignright" width="300"] Sustained westerly winds brought big surf to the eastern shore of Lake Superior. Photo Credit Alan Lukala.[/caption]

I break down positioning into two parts – (a) positioning for avoidance and (b) positioning for rescue. Avoidance - From a leadership perspective, I want to position the group on a line that avoids hazards and myself with line of sight of the other paddlers and to guard hazards.  Guarding a hazard could be shepherding paddlers past a strainer or positioning my boat outside a reef break and having paddlers go around me when rounding a point. Rescue - From a rescue perspective, I’m aware of the position of maximum usefulness. If leading in a tidal race I would position myself near the eddyline to be able to quickly enter the current. If paddling through caves and arches, I would turn my boat to observe others paddle through; ready to paddle in. If paddling in a following sea, leading from the back allows me to quickly paddle up on potential rescues.

(3) Safety – Rescue Priorities

[caption id="attachment_8376" align="alignleft" width="300"] With conditions like these, managing risk was huge part of making the Gales a successful and safe weekend! Photo Credit Alan Lukala[/caption]

Priorities in a rescue are your safety, the safety of your group, the safety of bystanders and then the safety of the swimmer or victim. This is not new information; most risk management courses or rescue clinics will prioritize rescues in a similar fashion. To be honest, my priorities would change if it were one of my sons or my daughter that needed rescue. Would I put bystanders or other members of my group in danger? No. However, I would prioritize a loved one over myself. Whether it’s family, a stranger or one of my students, I do have to keep in mind that I may be the best or only possible rescuer. If I fail on a high-risk rescue, I’ve almost surely failed the both of us.

(4) Boat Handling

Now that we’ve assessed the situation, avoided hazards, positioned ourselves for maximum usefulness and looked after the safety of everyone involved, we have to get in for the rescue. Both of the rescues in this post involved handling the boat with applied power and maneuvering in high winds, waves or current.


Rescue #1 - Bow Presentation Rescue (Whitewater T-Rescue)


This rescue took place while teaching a Long Boats In Current course with a handful of students. I was sitting in a eddy just downstream watching students surf a small standing wave. Observing the paddlers practice from the eddy, my position of maximum usefulnessallowed me to paddle quickly upstream once I saw the paddler was having trouble rolling up.  Had I been in the flow, there was no way I could turn a long sea kayak and move towards the boater in time. This rescue happened towards the end of a half day session and I was aware that the paddler had been rolling up successfully but was getting fatigued. When I went in for the rescue I also knew that the three other paddlers in the course were either tucked away in the eddy or paddling confidently. You can see that they joined me towards the end of the rescue.

Rescue #2 - Swimmer and Boat Retrieval in Gale Force Winds

This rescue took place as myself and two other coaches headed out to challenge ourselves on a day that most folks would have been content to stay inside with a hot drink in hand. Winds were blowing at Force 8-9 (gusts to 54mph) on the Beaufort Scale, making it hard to walk around, much less paddle.  As we headed out of the mouth of the Michipicoten River, the wind made it difficult to make progress towards the surf zone as the angle was both a headwind and quartering beam wind (at the bow). Exposure to the full force of the wind made it difficult to stay close, but we were all aware of each other's location and well-being.

Towards the end of the surf session, I became aware that one of the guys came out of his boat and the current was swiftly moving him out towards the break. In the video, you'll see that the rescuers were both able to control their boats in the current and winds and work together as a team to bring the boat and paddler towards shore. Both rescuers also assessed that the risk of taking the boat and paddler all the way to shore to be too great. Knowing that the beach break would do the rest of the work, we both stopped just outside the break and let the boat and swimmer land on their own. A key to this rescue was both paddlers being aware of the situation early on and in a position to get to the swimmer and boat quickly.

A big thanks goes to Alan Lukala for some great photographs and Peggy O'Neal and Jeff Forseth for the video.

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