Escape the Urban Travelogue: Sinking a Kayak

26 Jun

I had a new experience last weekend – an honest-to-goodness rescue where I played the role of hapless and helpless paddling victim. I managed to sink my kayak, beyond the range of self-recovery, while paddling three foot Lake Michigan swell and chop. In 54 degree water and 1500 feet from shore, the boat swamped in less than a minute. Fortunately, the rescue came relatively quick, and my pride sustained the worst of the damage. I was never in (much) danger, as one or two smart things I did ultimately made up for a variety of bad decisions and worse luck. Learn from me, oh avid kayakers, to avoid such a fate:

Get The Right Gear

I decided to take the kayak out on whim while visiting my in-laws in southwestern Michigan, so I had brought none of my own gear. I borrowed their little Pelican Pursuit kayak, an old beat-up life vest, and plastic-aluminum paddle because they were convenient, not because they were the best gear for my route. The smartest thing I did on the trip was wear that embarrassing 1980’s yellow and day-glo orange vest, instead of going with nothing and pining for my tight Stohlquist kit I had left at home. The old vest may not look sexy, but it did it’s job.

The Pelican comes with a flimsy spray-skirt that I elected to leave home. In retrospect, it wasn’t an entirely dumb decision. At least I was aware the boat was filling with water – I could see it flooding between my knees, and could mentally prepare to sink. The prime gear issue, and my major mistake, was taking a short, tame flat water kayak on a Great Lake, and not thoroughly checking it out before I did – I probably sank due to an unnoticed faulty plug in the stern of the kayak that let in a portion of each swell I rode. I was in conditions I had paddled many times in an open-top self-bailer, or long enclosed sea kayak. It was the gear/water combo that did me in.

Scout Your Route

A loose plug on a short kayak on a flat, shallow stream is no big deal. That same plug on the same kayak out of its element is a problem. But I was cocky – I have been visiting this area of Michigan for years, and so my route, when reconing it on a map, seemed feasible simply because it was familiar.

I wanted to paddle up the St. Joseph River, a significant waterway with a respectable flow (4500 cfs (cubic feet per second) this summer). I also wanted to paddle through the charming beach/resort town of St. Joe, an artsy haven for half of Chicago on pleasant summer afternoons. As I wasn’t going to be picked up at a take-out, I needed to find a loop, or at least a way to finish where I started. Paddling upstream is obviously more challenging than moving with the current, so I wanted to do that first. Staring at the map with all of these requirements, the most convenient put-in seemed to be the beach itself.

I would launch at the beach, paddle around the end of lighthouse studded pier, and work my way upstream. Once I got tired, I could turn around, and have an easier return. To be cheap, I’d launch at the public beach a bit to the south, rather than private Silver Beach (with (the horror!) parking fees) on the north end. Moving the put-in an extra half mile, however, meant I needed to do a 4000 foot crossing of open Lake Michigan surf and cross-currents to reach the end of the pier. No problem.

That familiarity breeds complacency proved most true in regards to the St. Joseph River itself. I have driven over it dozens of times, and regularly saw kayakers enjoying its tranquil waters . . . above the Berrien Springs Dam. I only found out later (from my rescuer) that the dam was in full release – the maximum possible flow was pouring out of that mouth between the piers. Against that unknown current I was planning to paddle.

Change Your Plan When the Situation Changes

A moderately experienced kayaker such as myself is safe in familiar conditions, and most situations that just push the limit of skill and experience. Trouble brews when an unexpected twist upsets your up-to-the-edge plan, and forces you beyond your personal performance/safety zone. Trouble came for me at the mouth of the St. Joe River.

At first, the water crossing went fine. I pointed the nose into the surf, rode the waves up and down, and paddled through. The kayak was a bit squirrelly and slick, and shifted a bit too easily under my weight – a rogue wave could tilt me preciously quick while I righted my balance. However, the kayak was also fast, and I was making good time. I estimated I could do the crossing in less than 20 minutes, even against the surf.

But my comfort level dropped the further I went. My efforts to avoid harmonics and standing waves off the piers were not entirely successful – the combined waves produced from power boat wakes, reflections, and surf were confusing and irregular. I had trouble keeping the nose square against the crests, and I didn’t trust the kayak (it was too short and unstable) to take them on sideways.

Halfway through I got nervous. Three-quarters of the way I completely regretted taking the route at all, and swore I wouldn’t return the way I came. I’d make the turn around the pier, paddle up the St. Joe, and on the way back, take out my kayak at any dock or marina I saw before the piers. It was better to carry the kayak on my shoulder a mile back to my car than do that open water crossing again.

I caused a great stir among curious pedestrain onlookers, the strollers along the pier and lighthouse more used to speed boats than kayaks, as I reached the mouth of river. Good, I thought, I’m finally safe. That open crossing was dumb, but I made it, and I don’t have to do it again.

I entered the river and stopped dead in my tracks.

Paddle, paddle, paddle. Six inches.

Paddlepaddlepaddlepaddle. A foot.

There was too much current. I wasn’t going up the St. Joe – I had to turn around and go back the way I came.

Test Out Your Gear

I won’t lie to you – I knew turning around was a bad idea. The shake in my hands and twist of my gut confirmed it. But I had put myself in a situation where I had no other option. If I had brought a rope, I could have tied up the kayak to the pier and gotten out there. But without one, coming along side that much steel in big swells and cross-currents was dangerous as well. The easiest paddle back was the way I came, at a less steep angle to take out at a closer beach.

I got the kayak out into the open and the tidal surge rocketed me towards the shore. Riding the waves in requires a sixth sense over your shoulder, to anticipate the coming wave and get your back end square to it, to avoid boat flips and enable maximum propulsive power. Once again, the swells came from odd angles, and I had trouble maintaining my line. The kayak shifted alarmingly at each cross-current. Even so, I covering the distance quickly, and I seemed I would be back to the beach in no time, none the worse for wear. Maybe speed will make up for safety? Never a good plan.

I don’t remember when I first noticed the stern riding low. Or when I saw that the water in the bottom of the boat had grown from scattered puddles to child’s bath level. I turned around and saw that half of the back end was riding under the water. I shifted my weight forward and paddled faster. The boat rode lower and lower with each passing wave. I turned the kayak directly for the beach, but it was hopelessly far. I would never make it. I spotted a pleasure power boat fifty yards away, and signaled with my paddle. They raised their bottles of beer and saluted me back. Three more strokes and the whole kayak went under.

When I hit the water, the cold barely shocked me – sinking seemed a worse fate than hypothermia initially. I don’t remember exfilling the kayak, but it took a couple swim strokes to make it back to the half-submerged form. A self-bailing, open top kayak obviously would have been more appropriate for such conditions. My bucket boat would do, though, if it would self recover. I turned the kayak over, pushed from underneath, and tried to tip the water out. Nothing happened.

I had never taken this kayak to the pool and rolled it. I also had never sunk it and tried to remount. If I had, I would have known my efforts were useless. This kayak was dead in the water, and I was more than a quarter mile from shore.

A passing jet skier that was more aware and less drunk soon came up on me, tossed me a rope, and towed me to shore. A nasty bruise under my left arm when I wrapped the rope (while I hung on to kayak, paddle and new dry-bag – that morning’s Father’s Day present) is all of the lasting damage I have from the experience.

I am lucky. If I had taken on water at the mouth of the St. Joe, I would have been pushed out into the lake – several tourists die each year from this unexpected hazard. Instead, learn from me – pick the right gear, test it, investigate your route, and don’t put yourself in a situation where one minor change pushes you over safety’s edge.

2 Responses to “Escape the Urban Travelogue: Sinking a Kayak”

  1. RaChaCha June 26, 2011 at 10:15 am #

    Wow! Glad you avoided a visit to Davy Jones’ locker!

  2. Pauldub June 26, 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    fade in Gordon Lightfoot…

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