How rough is too rough?
You can practice wet exit and re-entry in kayaks in calm conditions every week for years, but a single capsize in big seas is a lesson you never forget.
The first day we take our people kayaking, we teach them how to exit and re-enter their kayaks in the event of a capsize. After they do this for themselves, we usually do a paddle around the island to finish up the activity. Since this island sits on the edge of the reef, part of our route takes us outside of its protection, into the open Caribbean Sea. As we emerge into open water, we start to ride the swells, and if we have had sustained Easterly winds, (which we usually do) then the swells can be impressively large. For many people, this is the biggest water they have ever paddled.
The height of a wave is an impressive feature, but it is its steepness that determines if it is dangerous. Long, slow swells of mountainous height are no threat to a kayak, as they merely lift us up then let us down again. We usually get these waves when the winds calm down after a period of strong breeze, or when there is a strong breeze somewhere to the east of us and it is calm or light winds here. But if it is blowing hard here, the waves can be mountainous and steep, even breaking at their crests. If a wave is tall enough to “feel” the bottom, it will spill or even dump its top as the leading edge of the wave is slowed by reflection from bottom structure. A tall, steep, dumping wave will be impossible for all but the most skilled kayaker to handle without a capsize. But the capsize itself isn't a danger to a paddler here. It's what happens after.
Once in the water, a paddler has to make sure his boat, paddle, and, in the case of double kayaks, his partner are all connected to prevent them from separating. The waves will continue to push them downwind, often towards shallower water. As long as one person stays in the water the drift will be slow, and he may even have to swim his kayak out of danger before considering re-entering. Once you re-enter your boat, it drifts very quickly, abeam to the wind, making the paddler susceptible to the next wave and another capsize. This is why it is crucial to bail the boat thoroughly before re-entering. Once in you may not have much time to get your nose into the wind and your ass out of danger.
One such situation occurred recently.
James and I had just finished taking a group of students through the wet exit/re-entry exercise, and we were paddling around the island. The students were all in double kayaks, but James, Tory (the prof’s assistant) and I were in singles. James was leading the pack and the double kayaks were all sticking close to him. I was in the sweep position, with Tory, trying to keep an eye on the whole group.
I had been blowing moderately hard in the morning, but now the wind had really kicked up. From the dock on the sheltered side of the island the waves seemed big, but they were quite a distance away, so it was hard to be sure.
As we emerged through the reef-cut into the open sea, the magnitude of the waves suddenly became obvious. An eight-foot wave broke over Tory and tossed her out of her single kayak. I came alongside and helped steady her boat as she bailed. She had to work quickly as we were drifting onto the reef, where the waves, slowed by the sloping bottom, would rise to what seemed like mountainous height, and the tops curled over, crashing onto the shallow sharp-edged coral.
Tory stayed cool and quickly bailed her boat. As soon as she climbed aboard her body stopped acting as a sea anchor, and our rate of drift increased dramatically. With little time to lose, we separated and, before we could turn into the oncoming wave, it broke over us both. Tory was knocked over, and hit me square in the chest with one outstretched arm. We went over like dominoes. Now we were both in the water and much closer to the reef.
It was too late to bail now, so we swam, hard, pulling our boats with us. I began to prepare Tory for the possibility that we would have to abandon the boats to the reef and swim on without them. But we were making some headway, crossing the wind and currents instead of fighting against them. The farther we got from shore, the deeper the water was and the farther we would be from the deadly shallows.
Eventually we passed the last of the coral heads, and there was nothing immediately downwind of us. Out of danger, rolling in long swells, we relaxed and took our time. Soon the boats were bailed out and we were in them again. This time we stayed rafted together until we got turned downwind, parallel to the direction of the waves. The sea conditions here were so different from the gauntlet we had just run, that it seemed as if we had imagined the whole exercise. The rest was an easy paddle, surfing the swells for fun rather than for our lives.
By the time we got to the beach, the rest of the group had finished their paddle and had decided to come looking for us in the motorboat. They had had one boat capsize, but they were farther out to sea and not in any immediate danger, despite an unwarranted fear of sharks. The boys who tipped over had gotten back in alright and were none the worse for wear.
The question “How rough is too rough?” remains unanswered. It depends largely on the surrounding environment (ie water temperature, proximity to shore and reef), and on the experience and discipline of the paddlers. If Tory had not been so rock-solid calm, I might have had a much more challenging situation to deal with. As it was even with eight-foot breaking seas, we got out of it ok, but we really should not have been between such waves and the reef in the first place.