Safety Equipment

Posted by J. Stalnaker on Jul 13, 2007

I love to mess around with boats and kayaks. In the past two years, I built a woodstrip kayak from Redfish and a stitch-n-glue from Chesapeake Light Craft. Very recently, I put a new fiberglass bottom on a Jensen racing canoe for a friend. All the building and rebuilding leaves little time to actually use the craft.

All that finally changed this past Wednesday. The day had dawned with a little cloud cover but the weatherman promised sun with possible showers late in the day. My wife and I were up to the task of gathering paddles, pfd's and assorted other things we'd need for an outing on Badin Lake in North Carolina.

I was anxious to see if the new rack I had made for the bed of the pickup would hold both kayaks. I had used it for one kayak a week before and it worked as I had hoped. Today was no exception. One Thule rack on the roof of the cab and two one by two's supporting a 3/4" galvanized pipe for the rear and I was ready to go.

We set off for the lake and had one eye on the weather and one eye on the kayaks and the new rack. We noticed a little swaying but not enough to be concerned with.

We arrived at the lake which is about a 40 minute trip from the house. As we unloaded everything we noticed the wind was blowing out of the southwest at about 5-10mph. Clouds were still hiding the sun and except for a brief peek every once in awhile, you'd never know that the sun had risen that morning.

Launch of the kayaks was relatively easy and uneventful. The only thing that bothered me was the rocky bottom. I had just refinished the varnish on my wife's Redfish and I cringed with each little wave that buffeted her kayak as she left the shore.

We paddled out of the little cove where the boat ramp is located and headed for the open water of the lake. Being that this was the first time out for both of us this year, it took several minutes to acquaint ourselves anew to the world of kayaking. Soon we were making good progress and nearing the open waters when we noticed two other kayakers fishing near the east shore. Naturally, I wanted to meet them and check out their yaks and show off our beauties. So, off we went to make some new friends.

Two plastic yaks occupied by two rather nice people trying to catch a few fish while they were camping. Their camp was near the cove where they were fishing so they hadn't ventured out very far from shore. An observation that should have been noticed by me.

"The island," I shouted to my wife. "Let's go to the island across the lake and pull up and have lunch." Lunch was a couple of tomato sandwiches and some cookies and Pepsi. It was quite pleasant on the lee side of the island. The water is protected from the wind by the island and one can get lulled into a sense of well-being looking at the water and feeling the wind which was being quieted by all the trees.

We finished our lunch, sat and talked a bit more about the kayaks and the lake. We tried to answer a call we had gotten on the cell phone but the signal seemed weak so we decided we'd wait until we got back to the cove to call again.

Once again in our kayaks, we turned east toward the cove from which we had come. Not too easy to pick out the cove entrance from about a mile and a half away but we thought we knew about where to point the yaks as we started back.

I looked over my shoulder and couldn't see my wife. I turned to the left and had to turn completely around before I saw her about a quarter mile away heading in a different direction than I. I shouted to her to come towards me and as we got closer, she said she was concerned about the waves and wind and felt it safer to head more into the waves than to broach them. After a few moments of discussion, we made a compromise of sorts and decided to head for the lee side of a piece of land that jutted out from the shore and seemed to offer some protection from the wind.

At this time, we were about a mile from shore in either direction. The waves were breaking as whitecaps over the side of the kayaks and the wind was blowing around 15-20 mph with gusts that were considerably stronger. My mind went to those articles I had read of people getting in trouble because of unexpected weather changes and other circumstances.

My wife and I were struggling to make any headway. The waves and the wind were both trying to turn our kayaks and the only effective way to keep our direction was to paddle on the left side only. Even then, the forward progress seemed trifle at best.

We had moved our yaks closer and were discussing making a change of direction. But, this would involve showing our broadside to the wind and waves. Neither of us wanted to do this. In the middle of the conversation, my kayak, turned by the wind, was now rolling quite hard from one side to the other. Before I knew it, I was making a wet exit from my now capsized kayak. I broke the surface in just an instant. Hat, glasses and paddle still in place. I rolled the kayak over and hung onto the cockpit coaming while my wife came along side. My first instinct was to calm her and assure her that I was alright. My PFD was keeping me afloat nicely and if I could only re-enter the kayak, we would both be ok.

Now comes the time of reaping what one has sown. I had built and finished to the best of my ability two good looking kayaks. Knowing that having a yak is only one of many steps to enjoying the water, I had put off the purchasing of some of the safety gear. I did have PFD's and a whistle and a GPS unit. That was it. No rope, no paddle float, no pump and no business being out there without all those things and more.

My wife is not experienced as a paddler and didn't know how to try to help. We tried to empty my yak using the "T" method, but the wind and waves made it nearly impossible to manipulate the two yaks especially with two inexperienced people in the middle of a very deep and angry lake.

I tried to hang on to both kayaks for a while hoping she could head us for the nearest shore but it didn't take long to realize her limitations in providing forward progress and directional control. While holding to the bow of my righted kayak, she oriented herself to the wind and waves and headed toward shore. On the way, she was able to see a campsite and headed toward them. I watched as she safely managed to make it to their site.

Meanwhile, I tried swimming, floating, kicking and some praying trying to make progress toward any shore. About 45 minutes later, a man and his son came close to me aboard their fising boat. I waved and yelled, but no one noticed me. They were only about a hundred yards from me, yet they continued toward the far bank.

I could see the people where my wife had gone waving to catch the man's attention also. Finally, he went to where they were and they pointed toward where I was and he slowly made his way to where I was swallowing up the lake and tossed a rope to me. I held the rope in one hand and the nose of the yak in the other as he towed me toward shore and some heavy aquatic weeds. Once I touched bottom, he withdrew his rope and left. I still had no place to put the kayak on shore since about twenty five yards of thick vegetation separated me from complete safety. I had noticed while floating that there was a rocky area just around the bend from where the fisherman had deposited me. I made my way to that place and emptied my kayak of water. I got back into the kayak and hugged the shore line paddling toward the campsite where my wife had found safety. They were waiting anxiously for me. When I got close enough one of the men came and helped me out of the yak and I kissed my wife. The people offered me food and drink and rest. I wanted nothing more than to see our kayaks on top of the truck heading home. The people were kind enough to load our yaks into their truck and haul us to the boat ramp where we had put in that morning. What a good feeling it was to be ashore and safe along with my wife.

I wrote all this to convey one simple message. Don't skimp or skip the safety gear that could save your life, or at least make surviving a little more probable. I'm not saying that I was near death while I was out there, but had I one less item of safety equipment, like the PFD, I'd don't know if I'd be here writing this story today.

All of us think that those things only happen to someone else. Well, Wednesday, July 11, 2007 was the day I was the someone else.