On Friday, October 7, during the first full day of the Gales Storm Gathering in Munising, Michigan, we had an incident that included a Coast Guard rescue. Nobody was physically injured; one boat was significantly damaged.
The Gales is an intermediate rough-water sea kayak symposium. Many participants are certified coaches with other paddling credentials. But for the purposes of this report, “coach” refers to the coaches leading this journey, and “participant” refers to everyone else.
Twelve people were involved in the coach-led journey during which the incident took place. In an effort to get as complete a picture as possible of what happened and ensure we learn from it, we asked the coaches and participants involved to share with us their own accounts of the day. We received reports from nine of the 12 people, including both coaches, the participant whose boat was damaged, and others involved in the day’s events.
Our main objective is to ensure that this experience results in lessons learned — for the coaches and participants involved, for other coaches and paddlers who read this, and for us as organizers. We have chosen to retain both the coaches’ and the participants’ anonymity in order to obtain honest accounts and not cause embarrassment or hard feelings between them. We also feel this will help focus the analysis on what happened and how it might have been prevented, rather than on who was responsible for those events. (We edited each account to change names to “coach” or “participant” and a number.) At the end of the individual reports, we summarize the lessons we have learned and the actions we plan to take.
We welcome comments in the spirit of learning from this experience. We will delete any hostile comments and reserve the right to edit comments for clarity and conciseness.
The Gales organizers: Keith Wikle, Scott Fairty, Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin and Alec Bloyd-Peshkin
A group of 12 kayakers set out from AuTrain beach, traveling north and around a point to Bay Furnace for a 10-mile paddle as an educational session. Coach 2 and I assessed all paddlers for any medical conditions, confidence in handling 2-4 foot sea state, and proper clothing and gear for the trip. Gear included: proper boat for the journey, weather radios (4 were possessed in the group), towing equipment, dry suits, spare paddles, extra food and water, and helmets. No issues or deficiencies were found. Additionally, the group was part of a larger group consisting of 24 paddlers, all equipped in a similar fashion. The ratio of student to instructor was approximately 5:1, but one of the participants was an instructor to assist in learning and safety.
The first 2 miles were breezy and flat. No issues occurred and the entire group was in good spirits and paddling well. As the group moved, the sea state began to build as predicted to 1-3 foot wave height and 20 mph winds. We encouraged students to play along the rocks. At this time, a cold weather front moved in with shifting wind conditions and rain. Once that had passed, the group again found themselves in 1-3 foot waves.
Participant 1 got himself hung up on a shallow and exposed rock, and swam out of his boat. One of the instructors (Coach 2) attended to this and got him back in his boat and to a small sand beach approximately 30-40 feet away. The rest of the group were playing and surfing in waves further north of that position, all within 100 yards of each other. I circled back to address the swim and to confirm that all was going properly. Coach 2 told me that all was good and I reported back to the main group, with the plan of heading further down slowly to wait for Participant 1 and Coach 2 to catch up. I sent one of the more competent and experienced participants, Participant 2, back to help Coach 2. The remaining group of nine continued slowly towards the end of the point. My plan was to get a visual confirmation of the route to the next protected area.
Sea states had built to 2-4 feet with continuing wind. While I assessed the route, I had the rest of the group raft up at the end of the point. I got a clear visual of the next leeward area, which was approximately 3/4 mile downwind of the group’s current location. I could not see Coach 2, so I hailed him on channel 68 with no success. Then I decided to go back with the rest of the group to get him and his two participants so they could reconnect the group.
Within a few minutes of paddling back, it was clear no progress was being made because the group was unable to make the needed headway in the prevailing winds. So I decided to extricate the group out of the wind and conditions by following a downwind path, arching around the surf zone, and into the lee as planned. Conditions were getting bigger with waves of 4-6 feet. Then Participant 3 capsized and let go of his boat. Participant 4 put him on the back of her boat while Participant 5 towed the boat back to him. In the prevailing conditions, this took approximately 3-4 minutes given that the there were 5-7 foot waves in the localized spot. I was managing the group and directing the rescue. At this point, while the group was focused on the rescue, at set of 8+ foot waves hit and capsized all but one participant and me. The group began self-rescuing while I began rescuing participants. The participant who did not capsize, Participant 6, told me that he wanted to call a mayday. I agreed. He paddled into shore and began that process.
Within 10 minutes, the rest of the group had completed the rescues and everyone was back in their boats. I saw Participant 6, who was ambulatory and still in communication with emergency services. As the surf was big (5-7 feet), I decided to continue the 1/2 mile around the to the leeward side of AuTrain Point, which was the original rendezvous spot. Within 10 minutes of paddling, eight paddlers were in the flat, calm water with only Participant 6 on the cliff edge, awaiting extrication from rescue services. I had a visual on the Park Service boat. I began paddling out to assist in the extraction of Participant 6, but turned back as it was a Park Service and Coast Guard scene at this time. The eight of us landed on a beach.
The radios we were using could not connect as they required being within line of sight. However, both Participant 6 and I could communicate with the Park Service boat that was outside the surf zone and in line of sight with both of us. We spent approximately 20 minutes on the beach. During that time, I informed Park Service that the remaining kayakers were accounted for and no injuries were suffered. Also, I received information on the safety of Participant 6, who the Park Service said was in the process of being rope rescued by the sheriff’s deputies. I gained permission to continue to the take out with my remaining group. Within a few minutes, a Coast Guard helicopter from Traverse City arrived and rescue efforts were passed to that agency. A rescue swimmer was deployed and Participant 6 was extracted from the rocks. Pilots took him to Marquette and he was picked up by event organizers.
The group rounded a small outcrop of rock and Participant 1, who was just behind Participant 4, got himself hung up on a shallow flat rock. Initially, Participant 2 (last man around I think) went in to help and got hung up. Participant 4 and I went back to try and help. I waved off Participant 4 and yelled at Participant 2 to get himself out, because he couldn’t really do anything as he was hung up too. I told Participant 1 to jump out of his boat and lift it over the rock once Participant 2 was away from him.
Participant 1 got out of his boat and was trying to lift it from the cockpit, which refilled with water as each wave rolled in. He wasn’t really responding to me and wasn’t making headway, so I jumped out of my boat and pushed it to shore, then waded over to him and helped him lift it over the rocks. We walked it over to the small sand beach, emptied it out, and I put him back in. I launched him through the shorebreak, only to have him capsize again. The next attempt was more successful, and the three paddlers (Participant 1 and myself, with Participant 2 who had been waiting offshore) began making our way down the shore toward the main group (which was in sight), while attempting to move a bit farther offshore away from the breaking waves.
Participant 4 had rejoined the main group with Coach 1, who had come back to make sure that I had matters under control. As the waves continued to build and steepen, Participant 1 once again capsized and exited his boat. Participant 2 and I got Participant 1 and his boat (separately) back to shore. After a brief discussion of options, I decided that the safest course of action would be for all three of us to hike out from our location rather than to continue on the water. There was a cabin visible from the water, so we knew there would be a route to the highway.
Once we were ashore, Participant 1 volunteered to run out to get his car and/or get someone else to pick us up. Participant 2 and I humped boats way up the entry road past the gate at the main road, by which time Participant 1 was back with his vehicle to pick us up.
Despite the troubles the main group later went through, I chose to follow this path for a few reasons. First, I was confident that Coach 1 and Participant 4 were capable of managing the group of seven participant without me. Participant 2 and/or I could have regained the group, but I was unwilling as one of the leaders to either send a participant (Participant 2) on his own, or leave Participant 1 on shore on his own. Participant 1 was physically, and perhaps psychologically not prepared to go back out on the water at that point. Going either forward or back on the water was a less safe option than hiking out.
Pre-trip: There were 12 in my group with leaders Coach 1 and Coach 2. We reviewed resources, e.g. radios, tow ropes, etc. I believe that we had 3 or 4 radios in the group — some were stowed in hatches. We reviewed emergency and common communication channels. We reviewed hand signals and the travel plan. Group members were asked if they had any special medical or physical needs.
The launch: (Conditions calm.) We stopped for photos, practiced some edging, turns, and rolls. We paddled close to shore, in and out of rocks, and stopped to take some pictures. I had slowed take some pictures and was lagging behind.
First wet exit: (Wind and waves increasing.) I came around a small point, but found a shelf that extended out another 25 yards. The water was too shallow to get traction with my paddle. The wind and waves pushed me sideways further up onto the ledge (my Cetus took a beating on the rocks). Finally, a big wave rolled me over and I exited. I couldn’t get my boat off the rocks due to wind and waves. Coach 2 came back and helped me recover and re-launch. Participant 2 (a former kayak guide) hung back to offer additional assistance. The other nine paddlers were moving with the wind and were now out of sight.
Second wet exit: (Wind and waves continuing to build.) The waves appeared to be breaking quite a ways out. It didn’t look like there was much chance of getting out to smoother water. I had trouble maintaining directional control and ultimately rolled. My seat back was loose. When I tried to roll upright I only succeeded in pulling myself out of the cockpit. My boat got away from me in surf. Coach 2 recovered my boat. Participant 2 gave me a tow close into shore. Coach 2 landed and tried to help me launch again, but it became clear that launching was not possible for me. He flagged down Participant 2 so he would proceed on his own. We assumed that the other nine paddlers continued on to Furnace Point.
On land: We did not have a radio and thus no way to call for help. Coach 2 had noticed a cabin that we had just passed and we thought it would lead us back to the road and help. We were not able to get up on land due to the dense underbrush next to the shore. We scrambled along rocks and surf 100 yards to gain access to the cabin. We carried & towed boats. The cabin was uninhabited and appeared to be accessible only by snowmobile trail. While at the cabin, we noticed a Coast Guard helicopter going by westbound. We estimated that it was 2-3 miles to Highway 28 & then another 2 miles to the launch and 5-7 miles to Bay Furnace, but we were uncertain of a route to get to Highway 28. The trails on my little GPS appeared to have many loops. I estimated that I could run to the launch point under an hour; Coach 2 and Participant 2 agreed to stay with the boats. I had a small Garmin with topo maps for directions and to record my route for return. After several turns and about 1/4-1/2 mile, I came to Koski Road and followed it North to 28. Just before I got to 28, I flagged down a pickup and got a ride back to the launch point. At the launch point, I met Keith Wikle and Bill Thomson. I think I said that I left Coach 1 and Participant 1 behind and that we needed help carrying the boats to a pick-up point so that we could drive out. When I inquired about the others, Keith or Bill indicated that we were now all accounted for and that he would drive me to the pickup point to get my car and we would together go back for the others. When we got Bay Furnace, Keith and Bill started to round up extra cars. It was then that they realized that our group had become separated and the other nine of our group were still missing. Keith sent me off to get Coach 2 and Participant 2 with my car and left with Bill to find the others and we separated. I found my way back to Coach 2 and Participant 2. They had already carried one boat up to the gate and had returned to get another. I helped with the third and we drove back to the Bay Furnace to offload our boats and gear.
I launched with “rescues” group under Coach 2 and “cobwebs” group under Coach 1 Friday morning under flat conditions, anticipating building W winds. As our group approached Au Train Point, I noticed Participant 1 appearing to struggle with conditions. I paddled close behind Participant 1 as the group rounded a rock shelf with breaking waves. The group successfully rounded the point and continued on course approximately 20 yards in front/NNE of Participant 1 and me. Participant 1 beached on the rock shelf at the point. I observed Participant 1, and held my position. Participant 1 then capsized on the rock shelf. I approached the rock shelf, attempting to remove Participant 1’s boat from the rock shelf. Participant 1 struggled to separate from his boat, and I beached on the rock shelf. Participant 4 approached the rescue, encouraging both of us to “come over the shelf.” Coach 2 then approached and instructed me to get off the shelf. I struggled for approximately 30 seconds to leave the shelf. I then rounded the point and joined the group.
Coach 1 returned to Coach 2 as Coach 2 supported Participant 1 with a surf launch. Coach 1 then approached me, asking, “You are comfortable in these conditions, right?” I said “yes.” Coach 1 said, “Then can you stay back and support Coach 2?” I said “sure” and paddled back to support Coach 2. Participant 1, Coach 2 and I paddled through the surf zone ENE, attempting to regroup with Coach 1 and the group–approximately 100 yards ahead/ENE. Participant 1 capsized under 3 foot breaking waves. Participant 1 separated from his boat. Coach 2 put the boat on short tow. I approached and connected with Participant 1 offering a stern swimmer rescue.
Coach 2 and I paddled the boat and swimmer towards a rock shelf. I instructed Participant 1 to swim to the shelf. Coach 2 secured his and Participant 1’s boats upon a shelf as Participant 1 beached upon the same shelf. I paddled past the break and held position as Coach 2 appeared to assess options. Coach 2 asked me to beach .1 nm E of Participant 1’s second capsize. Coach 2 and I discussed launching Participant 1 versus hiking boats out to the road. Coach 2 decided to hike out. Coach 2, Participant 1 and I brought boats out to cabin property. Participant 1 hiked out to the road and later reported hitchhiking to his vehicle. Coach 2 and I carried boats to a gate on the road (maybe 1 mile). Participant 1 returned with his vehicle and assisted Coach 2 and I in loading gear. We drove E to the rest of the group at haul out.
On Friday morning we met at the rest stop near Au Train beach and unloaded gear and boats prior to staging vehicles 10 miles to the east at Bay Furnace. The plan was to do a down-wind paddle from one sheltered bay, around the rocky and exposed point, and finish in the second sheltered bay. There were 3 groups of participants and 4 coaches, with myself as an assistant. I was with Coach 1 and Coach 2, and they had 9 participants between the two of them. Coach 2’s group wanted to work on rescues, while Coach 1’s group was more interested in a paddle to “clean out the cobwebs.” The plan was for us to paddle together for awhile and then break into the two separate groups.
Our combined group was the first to leave the beach. We spent some time in the calm water warming up by rolling and posing for pictures while turning under an overhanging rock. Coach 1 remarked to me that this was a good way to warm up and observe the students before getting underway.
We then made our way along the shore, following the rocks and taking the time to do a bit of rock gardening. As we made our way out of the bay, the water began to get a bit choppier (maybe 1 foot). I was towards the back of the group, with two participants behind me that I was watching. I paddled through a small slot, and when I turned around, I saw that the guy behind me, Participant 1, had not made it through. Instead, he got washed up on a shallow rock. I turned around to assist, and Participant 2, who was behind him, was also attempting to assist. Before I could offer any assistance, Coach 2 came in and told me to stay back and let him handle the situation. I let him take over and Participant 2 and I rejoined the rest of the group.
Around this time the weather changed. We had a bit of rain and the wind picked up. The waves started to get a bit larger. The rest of the group was a ways off shore. Coach 1 sent Participant 2 back to help Coach 2, and decided that the rest of us would continue at a slow pace while we waited for the other three to catch up. Meanwhile, the wind continued to blow us to the east. I kept looking back to see if I could see Coach 2, Participant 1 and Participant 2, but I could not see them. Coach 1 said, though, that he thought he could see them. After a while, Coach 1 had us all raft up. He asked me what I thought, and I said that I did not see them, and that I didn’t like that we had split up like this. Coach 1 asked the group what they thought we should do, even though he told them that he knew what we were going to do. We attempted to call Coach 2 on the VHF (channel 68, as we had pre-arranged on shore), but we got no response. He then told us that we were going to turn around and go back for them. A couple of participants expressed concern over their ability to paddle against the wind, but we turned around and started to paddle back.
It very quickly became apparent that we were not making any headway against the wind, so we abandoned that plan. We knew that another group was behind us and we trusted that Coach 2 would be able manage that situation. We continued to paddle east around the point, and as we went, the waves continued to build. People seemed to be handling the waves well, but the group was becoming increasingly spread out, and this was making me nervous. Coach 1 was paddling quite a ways out from shore pointing out and making a ferry angle to let the wind push him. I don’t think that most people understood his reasoning. I looked at how far apart people were, and I remember thinking that if someone were to capsize, we would have a problem. The waves were high enough that it was sometimes difficult to keep sight of everyone and we were far enough apart that communication was a problem. I saw Participant 3 heading in closer to shore, and I started to head towards him to re-direct him back towards the group, when he capsized.
Unfortunately he let go of his boat, and in the wind the boat was blown away from him. I got to him and he was holding on the back of my boat. Someone else got his boat, but for some reason they were having a difficult time getting it to me. Another participant wanted to help contact tow me with Participant 3 on the back of my boat to the empty boat. This was not effective, and I was yelling that someone needed to bring the empty boat to me since I could not move. While this was happening, I looked up and I saw a huge wave looming over us, and I knew that we are all going to be upside down. The wave hit and we all got knocked over. As I was upside down, I thought to myself that I had to roll back up because a swim would be really bad, but I had three paddles in my hands and a swimmer on the back of my boat, and I missed several attempts to roll. When I came out of my boat, I looked around and saw multiple people in the water. It took me several attempts, but I scrambled into my boat. Participant 7 did a re-enter and roll, and Participant 3 was still holding onto my boat. His boat was loose again and farther away now. Coach 1 was helping people get sorted out and instructing people to head into shore. I could not make any headway with Participant 3 on my stern and my boat full of water. I was very unstable and capsized twice more, both times rolling up. Meanwhile I saw that at least one person had made it to shore, and I heard Coach 1 say that he had called the Coast Guard. I was kind of surprised to hear that, because although the situation was bad, dealing with these situations is what we train for, and it seemed like we could probably sort things out.
Participant 8 had retrieved Participant 3’s boat and towed it back to us. I couldn’t get myself into position quickly enough to do the rescue, so Coach 1 got him back into his boat. By this time, we had been blown close to the end of the point and could start to see around the corner into the shelter of Bay Furnace. Coach 1 had instructed us to land on a beach, but all I saw were rocks and breaking waves. People did not want to land there, so Coach 1 instructed me to lead them around the point and land on the first beach. We did so, and he was close behind, with two stragglers behind him. When we landed, he attempted to walk through the woods to find Participant 6, who had landed on the beach and made the call to the Coast Guard, but he quickly found that to be impossible.
While we were on the beach, we saw the Park Service boat head out, and shortly thereafter, the Coast Guard helicopter flew over. Because of the point, we were unable to communicate directly with Participant 6, but we were able to relay messages through the Park Service that he was okay, that the sheriff’s department had attempted to get to him from land, and that the Coast Guard would be doing the rescue. Once we got the okay from rescue services that Participant 6 was okay, we proceeded uneventfully the short distance to the take-out where we had staged the vehicles.
The group launched in calm conditions from the roadside park just east of Au Train beach. There were two main groups. I was in Coach 1’s group. A standard pre-paddle brief was held, discussing the paddle plan, expected conditions, use of channel 68 as a communication channel for marine radios, any medical conditions, etc. Once on the water, the group did a photo op, warmed up, and started to progress up the shore to the north, practicing paddling skills by trying to follow the shoreline closely.
Approximately halfway between the launch point and Au Train Point, the winds started to pick up and shifted from the south to the southwest / west. A small squall came over Au Train Bay from the west. The water quickly picked up from relatively flat to choppy 1 footers and building. The group continued paddling north close to the shore in a somewhat single file lineup. I was in the first few boats in this line.
Shortly after that, the conditions started to pick up, there were two events where two different paddlers wet exited. The first rescue was fairly prompt with no issues afterwards. The second was one of the participants in the back half of the group. My understanding was that he got pushed up onto a shallow rock point and had to exit. By that point the winds and swell was continuing to increase. Coach 2 and a couple other paddlers were able to get him off the rock and back into the boat. At this time the group was given the green flag to proceed forward, led by Coach 1.
We continued paddling north a short distance (a couple of minutes), winds were higher (around 20 knots) and swell 2 building to an occasional 3 feet coming from the west. To avoid breaking waves, the group started angling for a path farther offshore (at this point probably 300 yards). During this time, the paddler who had ended up on the rock was apparently running into more issues. Based on my position towards the front of the group, combined with the conditions, I could not clearly see what was going on behind. My understanding is that he wet exited a second time and was starting to get tired / shaken. Coach 1 instructed the main group to hold position and paddled back to assess the situation. He returned a short time later and gave the signal for the group to proceed forward. I do remember some indication was made that Coach 2 and another of the stronger paddlers in the group were going to assist the distressed paddler, and that after resetting / regaining bearings they would continue forward and work to catch back up with the main group.
The main group continued to push to the north / north east and approached a shoal / point, at which time we would turn to the east. I am fairly certain this was Au Train point, but did not get out compass / map or GPS to validate. Wind was brisk and steady (again I would guess in the 20 knot range) and swell continuing to build, big enough to where in a trough, sight of the other paddlers was lost (so 3 – 4 foot). The group was about ¼ mile offshore. Once at the point, the group held position at the instruction of Coach 1 and surveyed behind for sign of the lagging three paddlers. No visible sign was made by the group. The group then rafted up at the instruction of Coach 1. A couple of paddlers, including myself, had VHF marine radios and hailed frequency 68 to attempt to contact the missing group. Speaking for myself, I was not aware at the time that no one in the smaller group was equipped with a radio.
Coach 1 stated the situation (i.e. that we could not make contact, via radio or visually, with the smaller group) and asked for the group’s input on what we should do. Several members voiced the desire to turn around and backtrack to locate the smaller group. Coach 1 indicated that backtracking was his recommendation as well. The group agreed that we would paddle back towards the southwest and attempt to locate the missing paddlers. Coach 1 had the group perform a count off, with the intent that people would “buddy up” and help prevent someone getting lost / separated from the group. The raft disbanded and the group started to paddle back into the waves / wind. After a couple minutes it was apparent to myself that progress of the group was going to be very slow and likely impractical, and shortly after this thought Coach 1 called the group in together and expressed the same. It was decided to turn around and continue back around the point and to the east to find more protected waters and then assess the situation with the missing paddlers.
The group cleared Au Train Point and started to proceed downwind / downwave, approx. ¼ mile offshore. Waves were consistently head-high or better, occasionally breaking. I was towards the back of the group. The group was making good progress and holding its own. I would guess a third to half way across the headland, Participant 3 got swept by a wave and wet exited, in the process becoming separated from his boat. Several members of the group swept in, both to secure Participant 3 and retrieve his boat. I held position with Participant 8 at the windward side of the group with my back to the wind. During the recovery, I had a slightly larger than normal swell break over me, upturning me. I attempted a roll, but upon coming right side up I was hit by the next wave, and ended up wet exiting. I recovered and was able to get back into my boat quickly with assistance from Participant 8 (I had hauled myself up onto the back deck of the kayak and was scooting up towards the cockpit when Participant 8 made contact and helped stabilize my boat). Back in my kayak, I pulled my sprayskirt back on and confirmed to Participant 8 that I was good to go. I had some water in my boat, but felt I could deal with it until getting to calmer waters. During this time, both of our kayaks had become oriented perpendicular to the wind / waves.
I had just pushed off / separated from Participant 8’s kayak when a breaking swell much larger than what we had seen up to that point hit me. I did not get a good look at it, but it was big enough to where water broke over my head Hawaii five-0 style. The breaking water hit me with enough force that it ripped the paddle from my hands (the element of surprise probably contributed to this). I was rolled over and sideswiped upside down for what seemed like several seconds. I then managed to roll back upright (guessing more the dynamics of the wave than any skill on my part) and found myself still being sideswiped, up in the upper 1/3 of the wave. This continued for another several seconds, during which time I was able to look “down” and see the wave break over a couple other paddlers in the group. I was moving at a pretty good clip! The drag of the kayak sideways finally pushed me up and over the crest. I sat there upright for a couple seconds (trying to figure out what just had happened) and was reaching around behind to pull out my spare paddle halves when a second very large swell (not quite as large as the first) hit. I was again rolled over and wet exited after the swell had passed.
Upon popping back up to the surface I was able to look upwind and saw Participant 8 in the water next to her boat 30 or so yards upwind. My main paddle and half of my spare paddle had ended up next to her and she secured them. Through a bit of effort I was able to swim / drag my kayak over to her where I could get my paddle. After confirming that the other was OK, each of us then proceeded to inflate paddle floats and proceeded with our own self rescues. Upon re-entering my kayak, I experienced the period of exhaustion typical of coming down from an adrenaline rush. During this time, I used my paddle / paddle float to help keep myself stable in the conditions, and started to look around. The rough waters made visibility difficult, but I was able to see several smaller groups of paddlers (two or three in count) both downwind and out further from shore, in various states of bobbing in the water or the beginnings of assisted rescues. At this time, Coach 1 had come into our vicinity to check if we were OK. I gave him a thumbs up and yelled that I was recovering some strength. I believe Participant 8 did somewhat the same (at this point I was 30 or so yards away from her). He confirmed and indicated to proceed in towards shore.
I pulled my paddle float and secured my spray skirt, but had trouble making any meaningful progress due to a significant amount of water in my cockpit, requiring a lot of bracing to stay upright. I decided to point my bow into the wind / waves and start to let the conditions take me in closer to shore. At this time, I noticed that someone from the group (I did not know it was Participant 6) was on the “shore”, directly to the south. It appeared he was standing up against the low cliff face, and I could not see his kayak. Waves were breaking hard once reaching the shallow rock self that started a couple hundred yards from shore. I continued this mode of keeping my bow towards the conditions and slowly trying to edge myself towards the shore to the south for probably 10 min. During this time the bulk group was drifting downwind at a faster rate, with assisted rescues still in progress.
Coach 1 approached me from the north. I shouted over to Coach 1 that my boat / cockpit had a considerable amount of water and I could make better progress if I could get assistance (i.e. someone to come over and brace me) to allow me to pump it out. Coach 1 indicated that, due to the rescue activities still in progress, along with the rough conditions, the best use of time was to get to shore. I believe at the time he noted that the person on shore was Participant 6, and that he had gone to shore to contact rescue services. I confirmed understanding this, and Coach 1 instructed another paddler and myself to proceed straight into shore. Once receiving confirmation of our understanding, Coach 1 then proceeded back out to assist others.
Another paddler and I began a concerted effort to make our way to shore, targeting where Participant 6 was located. My companion also had a cockpit full of water, and we decided to raft up and pump each other out. This took between 5 and 10 minutes (both had a lot of water), but occurred without incident. Angling into the waves, we were able to draw into shore without incident. About 200 yards off shore, I paused and yelled over that I was not a fan of the landing conditions. He yelled back that he shared the same sentiments. Waves were breaking hard starting 100 to 150 yards or so off shore all the way to the low cliff face. At this time we could clearly see Participant 6 standing at the edge of the water, with no sign of immediate distress. His kayak was 20 or so yards downwind, stationary, and appeared to be low in the water on the rock shelf. Looking around, the rest of the group was now not visible, apparently drifting downwind and out of sight around Fivemile Point.
We held position for a couple of minutes, continuing to assess the landing conditions up and down the immediate shoreline. After a brief discussion, we agreed that trying to land would only make the situation worse, and that we were both capable of going back out and heading downwind to locate the main group. In looking back, at this point we should have tried to contact Participant 6 via marine radio (both of us had units), but the thought never came to my mind. We turned around and headed downwind, angling away from shore to gain distance for getting around Fivemile point. We were able to round Fivemile point with no incident, and located what appeared to be the rest of the group ½ mile or so away, hauled up on a beach at the first house visible after the point. The waters were markedly calmer (2 feet or so) upon getting into the lee of the point. At this same time, I saw a boat approaching from the east with flashing blue lights. We flagged them down with his paddle, and upon arrival we noted that it was a National Park Service boat. We verbally indicated to them that we were OK, that our main group was within view on shore, and that there was one member of the group that was west of Fivemile Point up on the rocks against the cliff. They gave us instruction to proceed towards and meet the main group, and took off around the point towards where Participant 6 was located. The two of us proceeded forwards and landed with the main group without incident.
We were greeted on shore by the group and were asked about the incident from our perspective, asked about Participant 6, and asked about our conversation with the Park Service boat. I remember checking my watch, and I believe it was around 2:30 p.m. Coach 1 asked if any of us had radios. We both pulled ours out and Coach 1 started monitoring channel 16. Conversation could be heard from the Park Service boat, who had located Participant 6 and were in contact with him via radio. The local county sheriff had dispatched deputies by truck / foot to locate him from the land side, and the Coast Guard was dispatching resources (it was not clear to me at the time what resources). The Coast Guard asked the Park Service to contact the trip leader to check status of the rest of the group. Coach 1 made contact with the Park Service via radio and had a short exchange (I was not privy to the entire discussion). At the end, he indicated to the group that we had been instructed to continue forward to the takeout point, and that the rescue crews had the situation handled. The group then prepped and launched to head towards the south / towards the takeout.
About five minutes in, a Coast Guard helicopter came in from the southeast and did a flyby, heading towards the location of the Park Service boat (which could periodically be seen offshore past Fivemile point) and Participant 6. The group continued to the takeout without further incident. Upon reaching the takeout, Coach 1 asked if anyone could give an immediate ride back over to the launch point so that he could acquire his cell phone (I’m assuming to attempt to figure out the status of the original three missing paddlers, as well as communicate out the situation with Participant 6). I volunteered and drove Coach 1 and several others (shuttle) back to the launch point.
Once the shuttles were complete to Bay Furnace, we talked briefly on the beach. I don’t recall much of anything in terms of skill assessment. In other words, we never went around and even said how many times we had been at the Gales or really what sort of experience each paddler had. We talked about who had a first aid kit. Coach 1 asked about who had radios and then, ironically, went on to state, “We won’t be needing those today.” There were no questions about comfort level with various forms of rescues. We did also talk about medical conditions that participants may have had. Once on the water, we headed along shore for some photos. Coach 1 did throw out a “if you can roll, roll” command, but I only saw one other guy go over other than me. (This is not to say there were only two capable of rolling. I just don’t think anyone took him seriously and it seemed as though it was more for the camera than for any sort of skill check.)
We combined with Coach 2’s group to launch at Au Train beach. This brought our total to three instructors and nine participants. Conditions were completely benign upon launching. We entertained ourselves with a bit of monkeying around in and out of the rocks. I did my best to introduce myself to a few other group members as I really only knew one participant and one coach.
It seemed as though it was about one hour into the trip when things started to get a bit bouncy. I was ahead of Coach 2 and two participants and noticed upon looking back that someone was struggling up on the rocks. As instructed, we turned ourselves upwind and held our position while Coach 1 and Coach 2 sorted things out. Coach 1 eventually came along and told us to proceed. Not long after, we rafted up in 3-4 foot seas to discuss options once Coach 1 noticed that Coach 2 and two participants were no longer behind us.
Coach 1 asked us what we should do, stating that he knew what we were going to do but he wanted to get our thoughts. I voiced concern at that point that I wasn’t too keen on paddling upwind but we agreed we would try to do it as a team. We numbered off into two groups and turned around. That lasted for probably only five minutes when it became apparent that very little progress was being made. It was reasoned that another group was coming up behind the three paddlers so our group of nine would continue around the point.
After turning back down wind we continued to follow Coach 1, who was trying hard to keep everyone pointing further from shore in an effort to swing out wide to get around the corner. The group was becoming pretty spread out and the waves were getting bigger. They were approximately 6-8 feet by now. It wasn’t long after rounding the corner that the first boat went over. I watched a second boat attempt a rescue and they too went over. A third and fourth boat went over and I could see that one boater was now without his craft. I came upon a fifth member of the group swimming and was able to perform a successful t-rescue. Eventually, Coach 1 and I came together and at that point I still could count four swimmers, one without a boat. I was uncertain as to the other three kayakers.
It was then that I suggested getting some extra help and Coach 1 discussed the need to get off the water. I asked, “Is there a nearby beach?” and he responded, “No, go straight in.” We parted and I stated, “I am going to land and call for some help.” I had stowed my radio in my day hatch. After Coach 1 said we need to get off the water, and told me to go in, I said I would go in and call. Calling from the water was never discussed.
I landed and proceeded to tether my boat along the shelf with my tow belt. I called a mayday call to the US Coast Guard. They, in turn, called NPS and I proceeded to talk with both parties. I told them of four swimmers including one without a boat. I remained at my position while NPS arrived on scene and sorted things out. At one point, the NPS asked if I could climb the cliff to which I responded, “I would prefer to launch.” They told me to stay put while they explored extraction options.
It was not long after that the US Coast Guard helicopter was on scene and NPS directed them to my position. They lowered a rescue swimmer and at the same time he arrived, a sheriff’s deputy arrived on the cliff above me. The cliff was about 8 feet high but it was very crumbly sandstone. I told the swimmer if the sheriff had a rope I could go out on foot but he said, “Nope, we’ll put you in the basket.” He and I swam out about 100 yards from shore and he loaded me into the basket.
I was originally assigned to Coach 2’s group but a decision was made to combine our group with Coach 1’s, travel until lunch, and then do rescues separately after lunch. Combined, the group was 12 people. Winds were expected to be 20-25 knots veering SW to W by about 1:00 pm.
There was little or no wind until about halfway around the point. The group was working on hugging the shoreline and practicing maneuvering skills. Within about half an hour, the waves had built 3-4 feet. By this time the group had spread out a bit, but Coach 1 was staying near the front while Coach 2 was near the back.
Participant 1 apparently got hung up on a rock and Coach 2 stayed back to help him. He apparently had let Coach 1 know to go ahead without him. Coach 2 took Participant 1 to shore and Coach 1 sent Participant 2 in to assist. The nine others in the group continued on.
Just before reaching the corner of the point where the mainland started turning south, Coach 1 grouped us up and we made the decision to turn back and assist Coach 2. By this time, we were reaching a shoal indicated on the map as lying between the smaller northernmost island next to Grand Island and the mainland. Coach 1 estimated the waves to be about 4-7 feet. The group was unable to make headway into the wind, so Coach 1 had us turn around and continue the journey under the premise that Coach 2 and Participant 2 (two competent paddlers) were there with Participant 1, and that another group was following ours.
As we started turning the corner into Bay Furnace, the group started getting spread out. Coach 1 was in the lead and started heading in a SE direction. I guessed he was trying to take us out and around the breaking waves near shore. I and at least one other person followed Coach 1 but most of the group, I believe, did not understand where and why he was paddling “in the wrong direction.” One was even asking where he was going. As we got over the shoal, the waves were picking up. At least one kayaker (I didn’t know his name) ended up in the water and got separated from his boat. Participant 4 was trying to paddle the swimmer to his boat. Participant 8 was rafted up to his boat and appeared unable to paddle the boat to the swimmer. I moved in to assist Participant 4. We were rafted up and paddling toward Participant 8 when a set of three large steep waves hit the group (Coach 1 estimated the waves to be in the 10 foot range). Participant 4 and I went over. I was unable to roll up because Participant 4’s boat was in the way so I ended up in the water. I noted several people in the water but still in contact with their boats. I managed to roll up but my boat was completely swamped. Coach 1 helped me pump my boat out. I turned to help with further rescues but Coach 1 ordered everyone to head to the lee of a small point half way down the bay. Everyone but Participant 6 (who was on shore) was able to get back in their boats and make it safely to shore.
Friday morning we had somewhere around 20 people interested in the trip in question. We all did a quick intro with name and main interest for the day and were divided into three groups: the fun and cobwebs group with Coach 1, the rescue group with Coach 2, and a boat control group.
At the beach before put in, we talked some as a smaller group. I don’t recall exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the line, Coach 2’s group joined us too. One thing that seemed a bit significant at the time and more so now was the quick interaction that Keith and Coach 1 and Coach 2 had about helmets and whether we had to wear them. I was surprised to see both Coach 1 and Coach 2 second guess their importance in front of us after it had been made so clear upon registration that they are required. There were also a few joking comments about incorrect forecasts since the water was flat at the time. I remember thinking how premature those comments were since we all know how Lake Superior can be, but felt confident that our coaches fully appreciated her moodiness. There was also some discussion about who had radios and which channels to use to communicate, but Coach 1 did not have a radio and I don’t recall if Coach 2 had one or not. I think we had about three radios in the group, not all kept in accessible places.
We spent quite a bit of time early on practicing some boat control along the rocks in the calm water. I was watching the skies and I recall feeling that little anxiety in my stomach thinking that it would be wise to take advantage of the calmer seas to get a little further along and therefore leave a shorter distance between us and the lee side of the point in case things picked up. But I also knew that waves were what we were there for.
When someone got caught up on the rocks and Coach 2 stayed back to help, I was not exactly clear what was going on. Some of us were quite a ways ahead, but still within sight of Coach 2 and company. We held position in 3ish foot waves as Coach 1 went back to help and then returned to us. I was close to Coach 1 when he asked Participant 2 if he would paddle back to help Coach 2 and the person on the rock. Participant 2 had shown himself as to be strong paddler during photo ops by the rocks when he rolled multiple times and in fact held a half role for a photo. I knew also that he had spent the summer guiding, and he said he was comfortable in the conditions and went back to help Coach 2.
Our group of nine now continued on and at a bit of a faster pace than we had been moving previously because the waves had picked up some during this time and we weren’t playing on the rocks quite as much. It felt like we had moved quite a ways from Coach 2 when Coach 1 held his paddle up in what I have been previously taught as “come to me” (vertical paddle). By now the waves were quite big (4-5 feet?) and some of us had difficulty maneuvering to come to Coach 1. It took a while but eventually everyone was close enough so we could hear Coach 1 yelling “raft up on Participant 9!” I didn’t know who Participant 9 was but eventually others rafted up so I got turned around and rafted up. We were slow to get rafted because of the conditions and I was very cautious while so close to other boats in those waves, but once we were all rafted we were solid. We were rafted up somewhere off the NE “corner” of the point, where we could still see along much of the north shore.
This is when Coach 1 had the discussion about “What do you think we should do?” I was a little surprised because I hadn’t seen Coach 2’s group since we left them, so I thought the decision had been made quite a while back, but at this point I figured Coach 1 must have seen them back there while we were paddling. I agreed that we should turn around to look for them. Thus far we had been paddling with the wind and it wasn’t clear to me just how strong the wind was. Participant 6 spoke up about being tired and not knowing if he could get back to them given the conditions, and Coach 1 thanked him for his honesty.
When we broke up the raft we got turned around and attempted to paddle into the wind and waves for a little while. I was watching the group carefully behind me and after about five minutes noticed that they were turning back around. It was not clear to me whether we knew the status of Coach 2 and his group or whether we just realized the wind and waves were too strong to make progress.
After deciding that we would turn around and continue on toward Bay Furnace, Coach 1 set a strong ferry angle paddling northeast, away from the shore letting the wind carry us east toward the lee side of the point. Some people were taking a more direct route around, still quite a ways from shore, but not closely following Coach 1. I caught up to Coach 1 to learn more about what we were doing and he taught me that this was called “ferrying”. I would guess the waves were 4-6 feet now and I was having a difficult time keeping track of where everyone was. At one point three of us worked together to try to count but it was very difficult. I must have been a little ways behind Coach 1 when the three of us were trying to do a count.
As we approached the east line of the shore, still north of the northern shore the waves may have grown to 6-8 feet. I suppose perhaps they were meeting opposing waves reflecting off Williams Island. Now we had our first over/swim of someone a ways closer to shore. I think maybe Participant 6 went to assist with that (I didn’t see Participant 6 again until dinner that night) and I saw that there were others over there as well. Just around the time Coach 1 came by to go to the swimmer, Participant 5 went over near me and came out of his boat. I went to assist Participant 5 with Coach 1 close by. It took me a bit to maneuver into a position to be able to grab Participant 5’s boat and get him holding onto my boat. Coach 1 was close by coaching me to “charge that boat” and to “lean into it” once I had a hold of it. I told Participant 5 we weren’t going to do a T-rescue, rather just flip it and get him back in it. I was concerned about losing the boat in the waves or flipping myself while trying to maneuver the boat, or losing Participant 5 in the process or any number of things! Once I had control of both paddles and good control of the boat I was able to lean in enough for Participant 5 to cowboy up from the back and get back in. I held tight while he got his skirt back on. It felt like a quick, smooth and successful rescue.
Coach 1 was pushing us to get going but I could see Participant 5 was pretty tired and I was pretty tired as well so I told Coach 1 we were going to take a minute to rest. For a minute or so we both held on tight to one another’s boats and I was able to assess Participant 5’s energy level and state of mind a bit through conversation and observation. When I felt confident we were both ready to paddle again I asked him if he was ready. He expressed that he was concerned about his stability with the water in the boat. Coach 1 was still nearby and wanted us to get going but I told him that Participant 5 was concerned about paddling with water in his boat and that he wanted to pump. I really wanted to make sure Participant 5 didn’t go back over if we could avoid it. Coach 1 said OK and headed off to assist with the other swimmer who was still in the water.
Participant 5 and I remained rafted and worked to keep control of our paddles and get the pump out. I don’t think we had got his skirt opened up yet to pump when we both looked up and said “Oh Sh..” upon seeing the crest of two waves that had just met high above us. I wonder now if we/I gave up too easily and if we had clung harder to one another’s boats if we could have rode it out, but, we didn’t. I’m ashamed to say that it never even crossed my mind to roll once I went over, but it’s possible that I was out of my boat before I would have even had the opportunity. When I came up, Participant 5 and his boat were gone and nowhere in sight. I knew that there were a lot of people over and no one close by to do a rescue so I began working to self rescue with my paddle float. (I had tried reentry and roll at home and knew that was not an option for me yet, and also knew I have a tough time with a cowboy re-entry in flat water, let alone in 8 foot waves.)
I realized that the water was quite warm and that my energy level was fine, so before trying to get back in the boat I swam with the boat to gather some spare paddle halves and my semi-dry top that I had (foolishly) tucked behind my seat. Somewhere along the line, I ended up closer to Participant 5 again and saw him grab his paddle float as well. I yelled and asked him if he was OK and he said yes, he was. I recall thinking that perhaps if we joined forces we could both get into our boats faster, but I don’t know, maybe we got separated again by waves, because that didn’t happen.
My first two attempts with the paddle float allowed me to get upright in the boat, but then I quickly went back over the other side. In between attempts, I continued to gather gear back up and think through the process. I also assessed my situation and was pleased to find that I really wasn’t concerned for myself at all. The water was warm, my energy level was still fine, the wind and waves were pushing me the direction I needed to go to get into the lee and not closer to the rocky surf laden shore. I took my time conserving my energy and recognizing that even if I did nothing but cling to my boat I would get where I needed to go. I did see during this process that someone far to my left was without a boat. I think I also saw, while I was still in the water, that someone to my far right was towing a boat. By my third attempt at self rescue, Coach 1 and another participant were approaching and yelled to see if I needed help. Before they were able to get close enough to assist, I managed to use my paddle float to get in and stay upright. With Coach 1’s forceful guidance, I rammed the spare paddles that kept trying to wash off my deck into the cockpit with me, and threw my inflated paddle float under a bungee. My boat was full to the brim and my skirt was twisted and would not stay on. Coach 1 said not to worry about it if my skirt wouldn’t work and said, “Rocks or no rocks, go to shore. We’ve got to get you in!” I remember wanting to ask why it was so urgent, but I figured he thought I was cold and that he likely wasn’t in the mood for questions. Coach 1 paddled off to help some other paddlers who were still in the water.
I looked at the visible shoreline with huge surf crashing onto small rocky outcroppings backed by cliffs and looked at how close the point was that would offer protection from the wind and waves. I figured Coach 1 must simply be emphasizing that once we got around the point we weren’t going to be picky about finding a lovely beach to stretch out on. I was a little confused about whether he wanted me to continue on around the point alone or not, but figured that I better stay within sight of the group as long as I had the energy to hold position and still continue on when the time came. I was facing the big lake and the rest of our group and with a completely full cockpit I did not have much maneuverability. I watched as much of the group worked quite a bit further out and held my position for perhaps 5-10 minutes until the group began to move my direction and Participant 9 came by saying we could head in.
I back paddled much of the way because I knew it would be very slow to turn around with my boat as full as it was and was concerned about getting hit sideways by a wave and missing a brace. I knew it was critical that we stop going over or we would spend all day rescuing one another. At one point, I did see two paddlers heading in hard towards shore with the big surf and then Coach 1 chasing them down and yelling. I assumed he had caught up to them. Once the waves subsided to 3-4 feet, I did get turned around and continued the paddle into the lee.
When we got around the point, we followed Coach 1’s order to stop at a small rocky spot. At this point, we were missing three paddlers, including Participant 6. I had no idea where any of them were. Coach 1 hopped out of his boat and said he was going to walk the shore back the direction we had just come. We headed just a couple hundred feet further downshore to a beach that would fit all of us and our boats and towed Coach 1’s boat there as he had requested. He soon turned back around and walked back to us. We stood on shore for a while and Coach 1 said he had seen three paddlers on shore, but it wasn’t clear to me when he had seen them or if they were together or if they had crashed onto shore or gone there on purpose.
It was somewhere around this time that we saw two paddlers coming around the point which turned out to be two of the missing paddlers in our group. Now we were only missing Participant 6 and I was assuming that somewhere along the way, he had went over and managed to get his boat to shore. I think the eight of us were all together on the beach when we saw the Park Service boat come through the south end of the channel between the mainland and Grand Island. By now, Coach 1 had borrowed a participant’s radio and was involved in the rescue conversation. We may have still been on the beach when the Coast Guard helicopter arrived. Coach 1 made sure that Participant 6’s rescue was in progress before we got our stuff back together and launched to finish the paddle to Bay Furnace in ~1ft waves. The eight of us had left the beach and were on our final stretch to the take out when the coast guard helicopter circled close over us, apparently due to poor directions about Participant 6’s location from the Park Service. Participant 6 later said that he saw this circle from the shore and that he had not yet been picked up at that point.
The rest of the trip was uneventful but I was worried about Participant 6. I didn’t find out until I talked to him at dinner that he was the one who had made the mayday call and that he hadn’t been washed to shore but rather had gone in on purpose.
Gales organizers’ analysis
It’s always easier to do a thorough analysis in hindsight. We readily acknowledge that everyone is prone to mistakes in the midst of an incident, so our main emphasis here is on what could have been prevented. Still, we will also discuss errors made under pressure because the more we consider those, the less likely we are to make them in the future.
As with many sea kayak incidents there isn’t a single massive event that triggers the incident but a series of smaller mistakes and missed opportunities that cascade to become a larger event. So it is with this incident.
- Pre-launch omissions. The first decision we all have to make when we are on the beach is “should we launch?” What goes into that decision is knowledge of the group’s boat control and rescue abilities, length of the intended journey, expected wind and wave conditions, bail-out points along the route, equipment within the group and an understanding and agreement of the CLAP principle (Communication, Line of sight, Avoidance/Awareness and Position of maximum usefulness). After collecting the relevant information, the group needs to decide whether to launch and if so, whether the intended route should be modified. By all accounts, the assessment of skills was minimal and done in flat water, rescues weren’t assessed, there were no outs or alternative plans discussed, crucial communication equipment was missing (see next point), and members of the group repeatedly violated CLAP.
- Participants weren’t really assessed for their preparedness for (or even history of) paddling in expected conditions. Because the plan was to do rescues after getting into conditions, not in advance to assess/improve, this added to the cascade. When unplanned capsizes occurred, people swam, let go of boats, and were unable to self-rescue. Although the group was able to pick up the pieces, the time required and the energy drained in the process added to the problems and the dangers they were exposed to.
- Participants weren’t sure who was in what group, didn’t know one another’s names, and were at times unsure who was making decisions. This added to the confusion, made communication more difficult, and fueled additional anxiety when the group was split, first by the landing and withdrawal of one coach and two participants, next by a participant who landed and called a mayday, and third by two participants who were temporarily left behind the rest of the group at a crux point.
- Safety equipment. The group did identify equipment that each person had, although it was a significant omission that the two coaches did not have radios and did not disclose that information to each other or the rest of the group. Additionally, at least one (and perhaps all) of the three participants’ radios were inaccessible in the conditions they experienced.
- Incomplete awareness of safe outs. Coach 2 had an opportunity to get Participant 1, who kept capsizing, off the water at a small beach, but instead assisted him in launching through surf, where he capsized again shortly after, requiring a more hazardous rock landing and a difficult hike through the woods with the boats. While we applaud the decision not to relaunch again, an earlier assessment of skills and options would have improved the odds of a safer and easier out.
- Coaches didn’t realize Participant 4 was a competent assistant, not a coach. And neither did many other participants. This comes back to the pre-launch communication, part of the C in CLAP, in which roles and responsibilities should be made clear to everyone.
- Paddlers were too spread out. Also, there was no real plan for who would paddle where except for the buddying up after the raft. This hampered communication, complicated rescues, slowed the group’s ability to make decisions and solve problems, and exposed everyone to greater risk. Several times, people were out of line of sight of both coaches.
- Decision to split group. The larger group decided to carry on along the coast while Coach 2 was sorting out the participant stuck on the ledge. This would have been a reasonable choice had they been able to stay in communication either by only moving a short distance and maintaining line of sight or by talking to each other on the radio. But they were unable to do either, leaving Coach 1 with too many participants. The choice to double back was made in this information vacuum. Those on the water didn’t know that those on the land weren’t going to relaunch, so this decision exposed the group to more risk for no benefit.
- Incomplete knowledge of the coastline. When Coach 1 commanded two participants to paddle in and land, he seemed unaware that he was sending them to do a surf landing on rocks along a cliff face. Fortunately, the two reassessed and returned to the group. But by the time they did so, the group had moved out of sight around a headland.
- Dynamic risk assessment. Once a group has agreed to do a journey, it’s easy for everyone (including the coaches) to focus on reaching the destination rather than making ongoing decisions before reaching a crux point. Even though most of the cars had been shuttled to the take-out, it was still possible for the group to turn back.
- The call to emergency services should have been a pan-pan. Mayday is only for imminent threat to human life. Pan-pan advises emergency services that they may be needed, but should wait for further word. Mayday requires them to respond immediately, exposing their own personnel to needless risk.
What we (the Gales) will change moving forward
- All coaches will be required to attend the coaches meeting the first evening, during which safety protocols are discussed, including pre-launch procedures.
- Coaches will be given charts ahead of the event and an in-depth briefing of launching and landing spots so they are aware of distance, topography and take-outs. This information will aid them in making better on-water decisions.
- We are working on a process for helping participants make better decisions about which courses to take, including more accurate descriptions of courses and the prerequisite skills needed, and more stringent requirements for higher-challenge courses.
- The float plan/course rosters used this year will be filled out in duplicate, with one copy left at HQ and one on a coach’s windshield so we are certain who is in what class even if changes are made after leaving the morning meeting but before leaving the beach.
- We will offer a brief (15-minute) session for everyone on how to use a VHF radio, including the three levels of calls on the emergency channel, and the use of recreational channels for intergroup communication.
- We will encourage coaches to remain flexible in their risk assessments and consider outs, turning back, and sheltered water options based on conditions.
- All coaches were required to have radios this year, but we will enforce this in the future and also have emergency back-up radios.
- We will establish a process so that if an incident occurs in the future, we will have a prompt group debrief for those involved. We offered the coaches an opportunity to debrief, first with us and then to share the basic story with all attendees at the Gales (to avoid a rumor mill and because they were so curious), but we we now recognize that we left participants to process it on their own until we reached out days later. It should have been done in a more timely manner.
We, as paddlers, never stop learning. The same is true about organizing the Gales. The previous five Gales were essentially incident-free and perhaps led us into a false sense of organizational confidence. This incident has been hugely beneficial to us as organizers, causing us to reevaluate some of our assumptions and leading us to plan a more thorough coach briefing and set of requirements for next year.
We hope this report and analysis will be beneficial to the larger paddling community. The same circumstances that led to this incident are repeated countless times across the paddling world, sometimes with more serious consequences. We owe it to ourselves to be as transparent as possible and to learn what we can when things don’t go well.
We are grateful to each of the coaches and participants who so openly and honestly shared their perspectives on the day’s events.