Almost dying is a blast, as long as you don’t.
See those waves boys. Those waves are death. I wanted you to see what death looks like.
Jerry to his teenaged sons after a calm morning paddle,
looking at waves blown up by afternoon winds.
“Paddle on or stay here?” I ask my girlfriend Julee. It’s day 2 of our planned 600-kilometer kayak odyssey down the outer coast of British Columbia. We’ve paddled 37 kilometers down narrow tree-lined channels to reach the open coast at Islet 48 and now we’re peering through binoculars at the 5-km crossing to today’s intended destination, McMullan Island. In the mid-July sun, the beach and protected cove here have a mellow vibe. There is barely a ripple on the water, but a stirring in the treetops hints of afternoon thermal winds starting to fill in. Two other kayakers have set up camp down the beach. They’re leaning against a log and take a break from their reading to give us a friendly wave. Too crowded, I think. I want to be alone with my girlfriend.
“I think we should stay here”, Julee answers. “This is a nice beach. I’m tired and there are already whitecaps out there.” Dressed in black MEC river pants, a royal blue paddling jacket and Teva water sandals, Julee’s long blonde hair and striking Norwegian features make her look, to me, like a model from a Patagonia catalogue.
“The wind isn’t that strong”, I counter. “Maybe 18 knots. After we punch through the rough water where Louise Channel hits the open sea, it should be easy going with the wind at our backs all the way.” I’m determined to leave the ‘three-shell’ beach here on Islet 48 and make it to the ‘five-shell’ beach in the McMullan Islands. This morning’s sedate paddle from Quinoot Point to Islet 48 has disappointed my sense of expedition, offering no prospect of the cosmic battle with elemental forces I’m secretly longing for. No chance for me to prove myself to Julee, or her to me. Maybe today would be the chance.
“Ok, if you’re sure it’s safe. But don’t expect me to be strong because I’m already tired”, Julee emphasizes.
“Don’t worry. Once we’re through the channel, I can do the rest myself.”
Julee acquiesces and we climb down from our rocky perch and return to the kayak. She has no reason yet not to trust me. She knows I’m the more experienced kayaker and generally cautious and responsible. Yet in spite of that, I’m about to make a mistake so serious it will imperil everything:my kayak, our gear, our trip, our relationship, and our very lives. It will take us days to work through why this happened and what we need to learn from it.
Our plan for this trip-of-a-lifetime is to hop from one beautiful beach to the next for two full months, bagging all the best ones from Bella Bella to Tofino. We’ll travel on the exposed windward side of the islands because that’s where it’s wildest: the best beaches, the most wildlife, the fewest people. We hope to walk barefoot every chance we get, gain fresh perspective during the break from our urban lives, and see if we have what it takes to make the leap from boyfriend-girlfriend to husband-wife. Before starting, we studied the entire route from Bella Bella to Tofino. Most of the trip would be low-risk paddling parallel to the coast. We worry about three of the eight capes along our route: Cape Caution, Cape Scott and especially Cape Cook on the Brooks Peninsula. Notorious for its strong winds, the Brooks has become, in my imagination, a sort of “Mount Everest” for our journey. We worry more about our open-water crossings, especially the ones to and from Goose Island and the 25-km paddle across Queen Charlotte Strait. But I’m certainly not worried about the 5-kilometer crossing to McMullan Island, which I expect will take only an hour. When we reach my red Seafarer K2 double kayak, we leave our wetsuits tucked inside.
I hold the kayak steady while Julee slides into the narrow front hatch. The kayak sinks noticeably when I squeeze into the rear, leaving only three inches of freeboard. The boat is too heavy! We’re carrying ~100 pounds of food, ~100 pounds of gear and 140 pounds (60 liters) of drinking water as there is no reliable fresh water in the outer islands. Lighter gear has to be in deck bags strapped on top of the boat. This isn’t the ideal kayak for our journey, but I’ve been paddling it for twelve years, I trust it, and it’ll do.
It takes only a few paddle strokes to cross the sheltered cove at Islet 48 and enter Louise Channel. And there everything changes. The ‘rough water’ we’d seen from shore turns out to be six-foot breakers. The bow of our kayak soars as we take the first breaking wave head-on. Probably just a rough patch where current meets a shallow bottom, I think, with smaller waves a little further out. I’ve kayak-surfed waves bigger than this off the coast of Tofino and Hawaii. Julee hasn’t paddled anything this big, and I’ve never surfed in such a heavily-loaded boat, but with me paddling in the back, we’ll be fine.
The wave smacks Julee in the chest, soaking her paddling jacket and covering her hair with spray, then sweeps back in slow motion toward its next victim…me. “Ooof”, I grunt as water crashes into my chest. Sea water runs down inside my paddling jacket and over my crotch, then sloshes over my legs inside the kayak.
Ahead of us, the next wave is larger yet. “Paddle Hard!” I shout to Julee as we punch through the surf zone.
Julee pulls her blade hard through the water but calls over the wind, “Let’s go back!”
“CAN’T”, I shout back. Turning broadside to the waves would capsize us for sure. We’d lose half our gear!
We sprint through the surf zone and shortly afterward reach open water.
And then my stomach sinks as I realize what a mistake I’ve made.
From shore we’d been looking at whitecaps in the lee behind a series of reefs extending south from Islet 48. Outside the lee, the wind coming from northwest is 25 knots with gusts of 30. The wind is blowing at a right angle to swell from the southwest that looks to be at least two meters high. In every direction, the waves are walls of water – huge swells topped with three-feet of surf. I’d been rescued years before by a passing fishing boat in similar conditions in the Broughton Archipelago. Now, as then, these waves have death in them.
“I need you to be strong now!” I yell to Julee over the wind.
“I TOLD you I’m tired!” she snaps back, horrified at our situation. She concentrates all her attention on digging in with each stroke, pulling hard through the water.
“I don’t like the feel of the boat” I shout to Julee. “We’re tippy with all this gear on top”.
Fear overrides Julee’s growing resentment and she continues to do the only thing that can be done – pull hard every stroke.
I look back over my right shoulder. A wave roars towards us with three feet of breaking surf on top. I brace the kayak to prevent a capsize as the wave shoots us upward, engulfing us in salty white foam. The safest way for a kayak to handle breaking waves is to point bow-first into them and keep paddling. But what do you do when surf coming from one direction piles on top of swell from a different direction and your destination lies in a third direction? To my rear, the next mountain of white-crested green surges toward us. The waves are travelling in ‘sets’, I realize. Two big breakers followed by five smaller waves is the pattern today. I’m keenly focused on staying upright.
What to do? What to do? We can’t paddle sideways, into the wind and head for Japan. We can’t paddle back to Islet 48 as the wind, current and breaking seas coming from behind are too strong. And we can’t surf downwind straight for the McMullans as the bow of the kayak will dig, we’ll broach sideways, and waves will flip us over like a ragdoll. I know this for certain because I’d done it many times while kayak surfing.
We’re caught in a trap. There is no way out that I can see. And now we are well and truly F*$%’d.
Another five smaller waves pass under us. When the next breaker approaches, I instinctively veer the kayak right (west), bow-first to the oncoming surf. I’m barely able to keep the kayak upright when the first of two breakers smashes into the kayak, ripping my too-loose spray skirt away from the cockpit coaming to expose a gap more than an inch wide.
“Are we having fun yet?” I shout to the blowing blonde mane ahead of me.
“NO!! I’m cold and I HATE this!”
I try to tuck-in my spray skirt, but it is impossible to tuck and brace and scan the horizon for breakers all at the same time. I drop my paddle briefly to free my hands, then feel the kayak rock wildly to the side when another wave hits. Whoa!
Okay, I think to myself. What’s the worst that could happen? We’d capsize. Forget rolling back upright in a heavily loaded double kayak. So we’d be swimming. Okay. I’m a strong swimmer. I’d last at least half an hour before hypothermia sets in and makes me useless in a self-rescue. Julee would last 15 minutes. Enough time to right the kayak, climb back inside, pump out the water, and start paddling again. Except that we’d be in the same situation as now, with breaking wave after breaking wave hitting us broadside. And we’d have lost much of our gear.
After a second breaker passes, I turn the kayak left (south) toward McMullan Island, dangerously broadside to the breaking surf, waiting for five smaller waves to pass. I dig in with one eye looking westward on breaker alert and suddenly realize the only way out of the trap: if we can’t go sideways, forward, or back, then we’ll have to zig zag.
Paddle paddle grunt. Zig the kayak right (west) bow-first into the two big breakers. Brace as they hit. Tuck in the spray skirt. Zag the kayak left (south) toward McMullan Island. Let five smaller waves pass. Paddle hard to get up speed. Zig sharply for the next breakers.
After a few minutes of this, I glance downwind and see two rocky islets throwing up white spray as surf hits their windward shore. Had we taken a more downwind route, we might have been able to tuck into the lee of those islets for a breather. But we can’t reach them from here. It would be too risky surfing down the waves.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, I think to myself.
On the day before our expedition, Julee’s father had called me “foolhardy”. An engineer and sailor, he had been unimpressed by my plan to sail downwind in our kayak using an untested outrigger jury-rigged by fastening a boat bumper with metal straps to my spare paddle. ‘Don’t worry’, I told him. ‘I’ve been paddling on the west coast for over a decade. I know the sea out there. I know my kayak. I’ll bring your daughter back – with all her fingers and toes.”
That’s what I’d told Julee’s father, and yet nine years earlier, I had nearly killed my ex-wife in conditions similar to today on a return paddle to Telegraph Cove. Like today, the wind that day had been light when we set out in the morning. But by afternoon, neither she nor I could make progress in our single kayaks into confused breaking seas blown up by strong winds and reflected waves. We couldn’t go backwards or sideways without capsizing. So we swung our kayaks wildly left and right trying to face bow-first into each breaking wave, letting ourselves get slowly blown backward towards what we hoped would be a sheltered cove. Seeing our distress, a passing fishing boat – the Princess Cherie – had rescued us.
As much as I bristle at the label, ‘foolhardy’ is precisely the right word for someone who makes the same mistake twice. And this time we are utterly alone in the wild. No fishing boat will rescue us here.
Paddle paddle grunt. Zig zag with the rudder. Brace as the waves hit. Tuck in the spray skirt.
Big one coming! A breaker slams into us with so much force salt water showers over my head. The water inside my rear hatch is nearly three inches deep, covering my legs halfway. I lose contact with the sunny skies, fatigue in my arms, all sense of time. Islet 48 and McMullan Island disappear. There is only the next wave, the next paddle-stroke, to focus on. And another behind it every five seconds. Psychologists refer to a state of ‘flow’ where the challenge in the task at hand commands our total attention. The challenge today is certainly high, but so is my skill, and with each minute we fend off capsize, I start to feel a little more confident we might just get through this.
Paddle paddle grunt. Zig zag.
Julee thinks that after a decade chained to my desk as a corporate banker I’ve become ‘pathetically desperate for a life-defining adventure’. She might be right. I want a break from grinding spreadsheets and pitch books late into the night, and from unrelenting deadlines with only a few short vacations a year. I want to be out in the wild and I hope there to find fresh perspective. Heck, if Buddha could find enlightenment at 35, why not me? My boss was unsupportive and told me I might not have a job to return to. “You couldn’t guarantee me a job in two months even if I didn’t go”, I retorted. There would never be a better time. Not at 45. Not at 55. And not after I retired. “I’ll take my chances. Have a little adventure.”
Maybe more adventure than I was ready for.
Paddle paddle grunt.
As we get closer to McMullan Island, a new danger springs alarmingly into focus: our course is taking us toward the rocky north shore of the island where enormous surf is sending explosive blasts of white spray twenty feet and higher into the air.
Paddle paddle grunt.
To the left of the rocky shoreline, surf crashes onto a bed of kelp. The kelp’s windward edge is making waves called ‘boomers’ rise to great height and then crash down loudly. We have to cross this dangerous minefield to reach calm water on the far side of the kelp.
Paddle paddle grunt.
Let’s see now. Behind Door Number One, we paddle out to sea, miss McMullan Island altogether, and get blown southward toward distant Goose Island. Behind Door Number Two, we hold our present course into the enormous surf hitting the rocky shore of McMullan Island, where my strong swimming skills would probably save me, but where Julee might drown. Behind Door Number Three, we make a daring dash through the boomers and across the kelp bed into the calm waters beyond, arriving at our five-shell beach for a splendid afternoon and delicious taco dinner.
As I ponder these choices, I turn just in time to see a huge wave towering over our heads. Julee screams the primal, bone-chilling scream of someone who is terrified, but powerless. I jerk my rudder to the right (west) and paddle ferociously toward the wave, barely able to turn the boat in time to avoid catastrophe. As the wave passes beneath us, I look back to see the stern of the kayak hanging in mid-air out over a falling boomer. The ear-splitting boom when the wave crashes eight feet below us vibrates our entire kayak. Three feet further downwind, and that wave would have boomed us.
Paddle paddle grunt.
I pick Door Number Three. We’ll have a fighting chance, that’s all.
Paddle paddle grunt.
I have to go to the bathroom.
Paddle paddle grunt.
We hold position outside the surf zone, bow facing the oncoming breakers. After the second boomer passes, we paddle furiously to spin the kayak end-for-end, bow now facing the kelp. I backpaddle carefully away from the surf zone, waiting for the second boomer. We’ll sprint across the kelp patch and into the calm water beyond on the back of the wave. Twenty-five seconds is all the time we’d have before the next boomer hit.
“Paddle hard!”, I shout to Julee when the second boomer arrives. The kayak surges forward on the bumpy back of the wave and over the windward edge of the kelp. But then a thick tangle of floating kelp-heads acts like a sea brake and brings us to an abrupt halt.
In the most dangerous spot of all.
Where we are sitting ducks for the next boomer.
Paddling furiously in huge violent strokes, we fight our way through the olive-green tangle of kelp bulbs. Thankfully, it is a short fight. In a few seconds, we’re through the danger zone and the waves grow smaller around us. We can breathe again.
“Its okay”, I tell Julee. “We’re safe now. You can rest.”
A few minutes later we reach our campsite on McMullan Island. A wall of trees provides good protection from the wind. Gentle waves lap against an untracked white sand beach. There is plenty of driftwood for campfires. And there are no campers here, so we can be alone. A solitary raven croaks a welcome from a moss-covered Sitka spruce. Five shells.
As we step onto terra firma, I’m shivering uncontrollably from sitting in a puddle of cold sea water inside the kayak. Or is it from fear and adrenalin? Julee hurriedly pulls on dry clothes and gathers firewood while I lay down on the sand too exhausted to continue. In twelve years of kayak camping, it is the first time I have ever rested at a new camp before the tent is up, the sleeping bags unrolled, and everything put away in its place.
Later that evening, the wind dies and it is calm again.
Conversation is sparse that night as Julee cooks up tacos using rehydrated hamburger she had dried during the weeks preparing for our journey. Tacos generally get expeditions off to a cheerful start. But not tonight. We’re both badly shaken by finding ourselves in deep doo-doo on the second day of the expedition, on a piddly one-hour hop with not a Cape or a major crossing in sight. From what I’d read before the trip, northwest winds like today’s were not a weather aberration. They would be the norm much of the summer. This was looking like one hell of a paddling adventure.
After dinner, Julee and I sit beside our campfire with the smell of burning cedar fragrant in the air. Julee is hugely resentful. How could I have been so cavalier, overriding her concerns about the crossing. Didn’t she warn me that she was already tired. After today, she can’t trust my judgement. She doesn’t feel safe.
I know I’m in the doghouse, but I’m just not ready to take on board what Julee is saying. Maybe I can’t handle what today’s failure means for the ongoing power structure in our relationship. Maybe I can’t handle the blow to my carefully constructed Banker-Jer persona: MBA, nice suits, organized, reliable, cautious. I’m used to being in charge, not deferring.
“There can be only one captain in the boat”, I tell her, drawing from my sailing experience. “In a crisis, you can’t be debating things. The captain bears ultimate responsibility. He needs to take charge and act. I’m more experienced than you. I’m the captain.”
Long after the campfire turns to glowing coals, we continue talking in circles. Neither of us will back down. I insist that I’m still the captain. Julee says that just because my seat has control of the kayak rudder, that doesn’t mean she can trust me to make decisions about her safety. And she has a trump card: she refuses to get back in the kayak with me until we solve our stalemate.
We need a new plan.
This is Part I of a series of articles about our two-month, 600-kilometer journey down B.C.’s outer coast. Getting so far off the rails on the second day of our journey shook us deeply and called into question our entire approach to the trip. Making our way safely around eight Capes and several major crossings would clearly require fresh thinking. Here are the lessons we took away from our near disaster – what we did right, what we failed to take into account, and what we learned from the experience.
What We Did Right
- Paddling skills – Prior to our trip, Julee considered herself an intermediate paddler and I considered myself an expert. I had kayak surfed and spent twelve years exploring all the sounds on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Had we capsized, Julee and I were both trained in deep water self-rescue.
Trip and gear preparation – We were well prepared for this trip. We had studied all the maps, read all the books, spoken at length with Chris Ladner at Ecomarine about trip-planning and beach recommendations. Julee had done a masterful job provisioning, spending many weeks preparing a rich assortment of meals and snacks. We had mailed a large Rubbermaid filled with supplies to Hakai Beach Resort for the second leg of our trip and to Winter Harbour for the third leg. We carried wetsuits, paddling jackets, flares, a pump, paddle float and VHF radio.
3. Local knowledge – In Bella Bella, Julee and I had signed up for a salmon bake hosted by entrepreneurs within the Heiltsuk First Nation. Over a delicious cedar-smoked dinner, we hauled out our marine charts, discussed routes and welcomed advice from our hosts.
What We Failed To Take Into Account
Despite our preparation, and over Julee’s objections, I had pushed us to leave a perfectly safe beach and head out into dangerous conditions that had nearly cost both of us our lives. This was ALL on me. Should I stay or should I go now?If I go there will be troubleIf I stay it will be doubleSo come on and let me knowShould I stay or should I go?
Should I Stay Or Should I Go, from the album Combat Rock by The Clash
As a corporate banker, my job is to evaluate risk and my professional judgement has always been top notch. Yet as a kayaker, my judgement has almost got me killed, along with my paddling partners, twice. What was it about the risk evaluation I undertook on Islet 48, the incentives, social pressures and psychological influences I was responding to, that made me go instead of stay?
- Misreading wind and wave conditions – From our perch atop Islet 48, I estimated the wind to be 18 knots, something which I had handled many times before. I failed to take into account the distance across a series of reefs to the nearest waves and the fact that I was looking at small waves in the lee of these reefs not larger waves facing the full brunt of the wind. The actual wind was probably blowing 25-knots with gusts to 30-knots. With a long fetch and a swell coming in from a different angle, it was enough for killer-waves to appear.
- The math of overlapping risks in the “Death Zone” -. The key unit of outdoor adventure risk is the micromort. One micromort represents a one-in-a-million chance of dying (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micromort). To provide a sense of scale, the all-cause, pre-Covid background level of mortality in Canada is approximately 20 micromorts per day. Scuba diving increases that risk by 5-10 micromorts per dive, a percentage increase of 25-50%. Base jumping increases risk by 430 micromorts per jump. Everest has a risk of 38,000 micromorts per ascent. Catching COVID-19 results, on average, in a risk of 5,000-10,000 micromorts, increasing to 150,000 to 300,000 micromorts in those over 80.
Waves have their own well-studied math. In deep water with no current, three factors determine wave size: wind speed, how long the wind has been blowing (duration) and how far the wind has blown unobstructed over the water (fetch). A 20-knot wind over 10 hours with a fetch of 75 nautical miles builds up seas of 8 feet. This is the median height, not the biggest wave. Ten percent of waves will be 1.3 times the median or 10 feet. One percent will be 1.7x the median or 13.6 feet. Rogue waves, twice the size of the median wave, or 16 feet in this example, are not unusual at all. As any offshore sailor knows, given enough time, it is a mathematical certainty the sailor will encounter a rogue wave, often coming from an unexpected direction.
On any trip by kayak or canoe, two principal factors drive the micromort calculation. The first is the probability of capsize which is driven largely by water conditions, paddling skill and boat seaworthiness. The second is what happens to the paddler after-capsize which brings into play whether the paddler has a lifejacket and wetsuit, is trained in self-rescue, is a long way from shore, in cold water, and so on.
Paddling risks often overlap, like in a Venn Diagram, to form a Death Zone similar the one above 8000 meters on Mount Everest. The book More Deep Trouble: More True Stories and Their Lessons From Sea Kayaker Magazine (https://www.amazon.ca/Sea-Kayakers-More-Deep-Trouble/dp/0071770097) contains 29 chapter-length stories about sea kayaking mishaps. Many of the stories occur in paddling conditions similar to the ones Julee and I experienced crossing to the McMullans, many involve overlapping risk factors, and many result in death. In retrospect, my decision to leave Islet 48 and paddle (a) through rising winds (b) across swell blown up over many miles of fetch (c) on a cold ocean where hypothermia becomes life threatening a short time after immersion (d) without wetsuits (e) to a distant landing (f) with no other boats around and no hope of rescue, (g) and fixating on that plan despite warnings the plan needed to change, had piled one risk on top of another, cumulatively to a point where we were lucky to escape with our lives.
So why did I leave 20-micromort Islet 48 and drag Julee on a “dangerous crossing” to McMullan Island? Easy. I was tricked.
- False confidence based on non-transferable experience – Although I am an expert kayaker, prior to our two-month journey, all my experience had either been kayak surfing close to shore, where capsizes have little consequence, or paddling within the confines of a protected sound, where I was sheltered from open-sea fetch. On both near-death experiences, I failed to take into account fetch, currents, wind-over-tide conditions, rogue waves, underwater reefs, kelp beds, reflected waves around headlands, and what can happen when these forces combine with one another. Even after twelve years of kayak camping, my personal risk-o-meter was dialed a little too high on confidence, a little too low on humility. I should have built more robustness into my daily paddling plan: start earlier, get off the water sooner, take less risk.
- Plan continuation bias – All human progress has been made by individuals who set out on a quest, optimistic they’ll overcome obstacles met along the way and eventually reach their goal. In The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error Sidney Decker describes a variant of optimism – plan continuation bias – that acts more subtly as a cognitive bias. It causes people to continue with an original plan when obstacles or changing conditions instead call for switching to a different plan. Plan continuation bias has been found to underpin many airplane and maritime disasters. It appears to be particularly strong toward the end of an activity due to the interaction of cognitive load, task demands and other social influences. Clues that suggest the initial plan is correct are often strong and unambiguous (calm paddling from Quinoot Point to Islet 48). Later cues that the plan should be abandoned are typically weaker, more ambiguous, and easily misinterpreted (surf and whitecaps seen from Islet 48). This helps lock people into continuing with a maladaptive plan, especially when abandoning the plan or goal is seen as costly in economic, status or other terms. Tim Hardford’s excellent podcast — Cautionary Tales – has two episodes that describe examples of plan continuation bias ending in disaster. In Rocks Ahead he describes how one of the largest oil tankers in the world— Torrey Canyon — ran aground leading to the world’s largest oil spill. The ship’s captain failed to modify his plan or alter course in the face of mounting evidence the ship was heading to disaster.
To mitigate the impacts of plan continuation bias, risk experts suggest practicing teamwork and plan modification under pressure (self-rescue practice for kayakers). Processes that amplify and respect warning signs are helpful (heeding your partner instead of ignoring her). Pumping up the alternatives to taking a big risk can also be effective in persuading egotists to try again later in better conditions. So, it seems, our near disaster is partly Julee’s fault. Had she stripped off her clothes on Islet 48 and run around naked, or made a sandwich, I might have been less anxious to continue with a flawed plan.
- My Loose spray skirt – I had purchased new spray skirts for our trip, but deliberately kept mine very loose due to a shoulder injury which prevented me from reaching around to tuck in the back of the spray skirt properly. Cold water coming into my hatch both slowed our progress toward safety by making the boat heavier and increased the risk of hypothermia.
- Flawed Risk-O-Meter when romantic prospects are around – People simply take greater risks when trying to show off to a prospective partner, or when filming a stunt for YouTube or Instagram. Something about a pretty face and the chance to gain status in their eyes sends our hearts aflutter and turns our brains into hormone-addled mush. So our near disaster is Julee’s fault after all, at least partly.
- Check Wind and Wave Forecasts Before Heading Out –I purchased a new handheld VHF marine radio in a rush days before our departure, then accidentally threw out the instructions. On the morning of our crossing to McMullan Island I had been unable to figure out how to work the damn thing, so we had no warning of the wind we’d face in the afternoon. I spent the first two days on McMullan Island turning dials and pressing buttons randomly, without success. Thankfully, on our third day, a group of five kayakers we’d seen on the ferry pulled up at our camp. A Heiltsuk water taxi had taken them from Bella Bella to Goose Island and now the group was paddling back to Bella Bella. After some friendly chatter, Mark, owner of a Sports Junkies store in Vancouver, showed me how I’d been scanning only the USA channels, not the Int’l or WX (weather) channels. ‘Really gnarly seas a couple of days ago’, he tells me. ‘I saw god out there’. Always, always, always check the marine weather forecast before leaving shore! Also check the Sea Kayak Guides Alliance of B.C. Water Classification Map for a sense of the riskiness of the stretch of coast you’re heading to (https://www.skgabc.com/resources/operating-standards-2/water-classification-maps).
- Wear a wetsuit or dry suit on exposed paddles – Julee and I had wetsuits with us, but on Islet 48, in the warm sun and sheltered from the wind, neither of us had thought it necessary to put them on. Wetsuits or dry suits dramatically increase post-immersion survival time, greatly increasing the chance of a successful rescue. Wearing a wetsuit or dry suit should be considered mandatory for remote paddles in cold water. Julee and I resolved immediately to wear our wetsuits every day, at least until we rounded the Brooks Peninsula.
- Respect the changing moods of the Sea Gods. Waters that are passable in the morning breeze can kill by afternoon and be calm again by evening. Always have a bailout point or “safety stop” in mind, and factor in how much conditions might change before you get there. The longer the distance to the next bailout point, the more conservative your decisions have to be. John Steinbeck captured it well when he wrote “A journey is like a marriage – the certain way to be wrong is to think that you control it.”
- Double kayaks have safety advantages over singles. Even speedy doubles have more beam than singles and are thus less easily capsized. In a double, Julee is always three feet ahead of me; I never have to wait for her and she never gets left behind. Doubles are a better platform for fishing and conversation and make better headway if one paddler is injured. Two people in a double are less likely to push forward into dangerous conditions. If they do stupidly press forward, as we had done on our paddle to the McMullans, they won’t get separated with one unable to help the other. Of the 29 stories in More Trouble, several involve situations where the simple decision to set out in singles instead of doubles probably led to unnecessary deaths. Particularly for trips involving paddlers at different levels, consider pairing the weaker paddler in the front of a double kayak with a stronger paddler in back for greater safety.
- If in doubt, default to the most conservative view. This lesson is so simple – and yet so critical – that I’m embarrassed it took us two days of debate to agree on it. If all participants cannot agree on the most desirable course of action, they must default to the more conservative option. No one has the right to impose additional danger on others without their full consent. If anyone thinks the plan is unsafe, stop. Find a new plan. On McMullan Island, Julee flatly rejected my “I’m the captain” approach not only for kayaking but also for our broader relationship. On the third day of debate, I finally started thinking “we” instead of “me” and saw the wisdom of defaulting to the more conservative option. Much relieved, Julee happily climbed back into the boat with me, and we continued paddling south.
As for the single most important lesson from our McMullan Island experience, by now it should be clear to all: any man lucky enough to find a woman like Julee should grab her tight and hold on with both hands!