Monday, May 24, 2010

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.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

San Carlos Sonora, 19 May 2010

Back again after a busy season. How do I summarise four months in a few paragraphs? Let me try.

First the challenges. I wanted time to work on Manadi, so I asked for a few free days before I started work. I got two: not enough time even to get the boat out of storage. “Oh don’t worry,” they would say, ”right after this trip you will have some time off.” And when I got back? “We had to change your schedule a bit. You are going out to Lighthouse Reef for a month, but don’t worry, we have you scheduled for some time off right after.“ And then they would change my schedule again. Six times they changed my schedule. Finally, three quarters of the way through the season, they gave me two weeks off. I worked frantically and got the boat much closer to completion. And I solved the biggest challenge: finding a way to securely connect the main hull to the amas. So now it is so close I can almost taste it. But I have to wait until next winter.

The next big challenge came in the form of illness. There is a class of viruses referred to as noroviruses, which spread rapidly, and cause a short-term illness often referred to as “stomach flu”. Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps are the common symptoms, and it lasts a few hours to two days. The worst of this group is called the Norwalk Virus, and it was rampant in schools in parts of the US. A cruise ship arrived at Belize City with 400 passengers down with the virus. Although the ship was quarantined, the virus still spread to the mainland, and eventually arrived at Half Moon Caye.

In the worst incident, we had eighteen out of thirty people (including your humble scribbler) hit overnight. We had to modify our procedures a bit to keep it from spreading, did a major disinfection of the camp, and we got it under control quickly, never to appear again. While this was going on, we continued to take those healthy enough out snorkelling and fishing. Then my nightmare happened. Two of the guests came to me and asked if they could do a little paddling, and maybe a snorkel, unescorted. I was still ill but getting better, so I told them they could paddle only as far as the end of the island – I did not want them going beyond that, as it would take them into open unsheltered waters. At the end of the island is a small beach. I told them to paddle to this beach –and no further- and wait for me there. I would head down on foot and watch them from shore f they wanted to do a little snorkelling.

I was delayed getting down to the beach, dealing with the office by sat phone, and when I got to the beach, there was no sign of either of them. I waded out and looked around the corner of the island and saw one person paddling out toward the waves, which were breaking on the coral rubble. I whistled and she came back to me. “Where is your partner?” I asked. “She went ahead.” She replied. There was no sign of her between the shore and the big waves crashing on the rocks. “Why didn’t you wait?” I asked, annoyed and concerned. “I told her to wait, but she went ahead.”

I took her kayak and went looking for my wandering guest. I paddled around the reef, avoiding the surf zone and began to scan the water and shore for any sign. The kayak was not in sight on the water beyond the reef, so I looked along the shore. My worst nightmare revealed itself. There was the missing kayak, upside down, washed against the shore. No one was nearby. My first thought was that she has paddled straight into the surf – even though she could see the waves as she approached them – got flipped over, and has hit her head and drowned. I scanned the shore for a body washed up. I saw her sitting at the water’s edge, conscious and alert, waving to me. I waved back, she waved again as if she hadn’t seen me wave. I waved again but it was no good; she couldn’t see well enough to tell that I had seen her. I was relieved that she was alive and not in immediate danger, but she still could have been injured. She was sitting right at the shore.

I paddled quickly, as I had quite a distance to go before I could land my kayak. I wasn’t going to go through the surf that tossed her out of her boat. When I got a shore, I rushed through camp, and got the cooks, Bol and Phillip to help me. Phillip came with me, and Bol went around the other side of the island. We made our way along the shore. We found the paddle, then the boat, but no sign of our wayward guest. Bol showed up, having walked the whole shoreline. The nightmare just got worse again. She has wandered somewhere into the middle of the island. This island isn’t big, but the forested section is dense and trackless. I wondered 'Why she would wander off?" And why wouldn’t she stick to the shore where she would be easy to find? She was only 150m or so from our camp, if she had followed the rocky beach. After about 45 minutes of searching I stumbled into camp, there she was, with a couple of the guys who had found her. She gave me a hug and told me she forgave me. I was ready to strangle her!

This incident taught me to be very wary of letting people go off on their own, especially little old ladies, whom you would think would have more sense. We were very lucky too, as nobody was hurt and even the boat and paddle were undamaged. She lost her sunglasses, hat and sandals though, but that is a plus, as otherwise I don’t think she would have learned a thing from this incident.
Another lesson well-learned this year was one of sunburn. The day the guests arrive I inform them of the hazards to their health and safety, and the greatest threat is from the sun. I tell them that they need to stay hydrated as they need to sweat to cool down, and if they stop sweating, their brain will overheat and they will collapse from heat exhaustion or even heat stroke. By comparison, I say, sunburn is a painful annoyance. I strongly recommend sunscreen, but I let them know that if they are determined to burn themselves I don’t care. I was wrong.

We had a group of students from Prince Edward Island, on Canada’s Atlantic shore, out to Glover’s Reef for three days. What can happen in three days? Right? Wrong. These students had already spent five days on the coast, and many of them had burned and peeled. A hot day in P.E.I. is not a lot less hot than a day on a breezy cay in Belize but the difference in intensity of sunlight is huge. These young adults didn’t realise this. One young chap got a massive second-degree burn over his entire upper back and shoulders. It was horrifying. They were headed to a jungle lodge for two days after leaving our little island. These islands are a pretty clean environment, for the tropics, with clean white sand and a salty sea. By comparison, the jungle is a seething mass of infection waiting for a break in the skin to take hold, and to take over. If the blisters on this young lad’s skin were to break, he would be seriously exposed to possible infection. I made an example of him to the crowd, and told him, he needs to avoid any further exposure to the sun, and should not even consider going for a swim in the pool at the lodge. I hope he made it home alright.

So much for the challenges. Otherwise it was an incredible season. Every year we see more turtles than the previous one. As usual I got to meet interesting people from many walks of life. The crew I worked with were great. And as the season progressed the water got more enjoyable. We also had some great school groups. Tony Rino’s kids from St. Peter’s Catholic School, just outside Ottawa, were a great bunch and I turned 50 on the last day with them. They treated me like a king, as did the arriving group of guests, with most of whom I suddenly found myself sharing a decade. You only turn 50 once.

The last two weeks were very special for me. We had an unique situation, in that we were hosting a group of students who were taking a field course, through the University of Western Ontario. The professor, his two assistants, and a couple of the students were from Western, but the rest of the students were from various universities all over southern Ontario. The biggest block was from my alma mater, the University of Guelph, which has a massive biology program, and is very field-oriented. These young adults worked hard recording their observations, and devising little experiments, and they stayed up late like children, not wanting to miss a thing.

At the same time, the Wildlife Conservation Society had a team of biologists on the island. They were tagging and tracking sharks, turtles and stingrays. This was a great opportunity for the students to see field research being carried out, and even to participate in the some of the data collection. And it was handy for the WCS researchers, who used the help of the students. I had a great time, watching all of this unfold, and meeting the researchers and their assistants. I also met a photo-journalist and his assistant, who work with the National Geographic Society, and were chronicling some of the research work.

It was a great season and a smashing finale. I feel lucky to be a small part of it.