The wind (whether it had filled in or whether it had been that strong all along out in the bay) was now blowing around 25 – 30 knots and after a while my buddy indicated that he wasn’t making any progress and that he was exhausted. And then he fell off. I came up behind him, slipped off my ski and held his while he got back on. He fell off again almost immediately and I made the decision to pop off my flares. My reasoning was that we were definitely in trouble – we were in the water in big chop with a major headwind; my companion was getting tired (and now cold); directly downwind the shore is not good for trying to land – boulders & cliffs. Whatever happened, I wanted to try to ensure that people would be looking for us – the NSRI station is only a couple of kilometres away and I was confident that someone would see the flares.
The flares I use are Pencil type – they come in a waterproof container in a set of 6 with a pen-sized grip & trigger. I draped myself over the ski in such a way that I was holding on with my elbow, leaving both hands free. The ski was broadside to wind & waves in the most stable possible position. The flares were easy to set off. The handle screws into the base of the flare, you pull the sprung lever back with your thumb, let go, & crack, away it goes. I had been told not to try to fire them up wind – you get your own back that way and a face full of flaming magnesium is definitely a Bad Thing – so I just fired them straight up. The wind didn’t just blow the flares away instantly; they went straight up and only then blew downwind. Each flare lasts about 5 seconds.
Because the flares don’t last long and because they are not extremely bright, I popped off all six of them in the hope that one at least would be seen. The correctness of this decision is born out by the fact that the first person to report to NSRI did only see one of them – from Chapman’s Peak Drive. (It’s actually better to keep a couple of the flares in reserve – your rescuers are likely to be easier to spot than you and you can pop off a flare or two to guide them to you.)
After I’d fired the flares, we got back on the skis again, my companion heading straight off downwind. His aim was to get close the edge of the bay where he figured that the wind would be reflected off the cliffs and there would be a lull. I was not at all keen to test that theory and chased after him and told him to head left towards a bay near a derelict house where I knew that there was a relatively possible landing spot – a beach of boulders.
To cut a long story (involving my companion falling off again) short, we did eventually manage to work our way all the way around the bay and back to the beach.
About 30 minutes after I fired the flares, the NSRI rubber duck hove into view and I was able to tell them that we were OK as we'd reached relatively calm water and were no longer fighting directly into the wind.
What I learned from this
This was an extremely sobering experience with a number of lessons to be learned.
- Don’t be a bloody fool and go downwind towards a bad lee shore. The southeaster is fine in Hout Bay because you set off into it and you come back towards a beach. In the Northwester, you have nowhere to go. I have no excuse for this one.
- Remember that you're making decisions not just for yourself but the people whom you're with. At least part of my failure (as I see it) was to think, "oh well he knows what he's doing, if he thinks it's ok to go across the bay, I'm fine with it." But I knew he was out of practise and I should have suggested staying on the windward side of the bay.
- Appearances are deceptive when you're going downwind - the wind doesn't feel as strong and the waves feel very different.
- Always carry a mobile phone. I always do when I go offshore, but don't usually when in Hout Bay. That just changed. I was confident that someone would see the flares, but how could I be sure? If I'd had my mobile, I'd have been speaking to the Hout Bay harbour master and certain that help was on its way.
- Pencil flares ARE effective. The NSRI received a number of calls from people who'd seen my flares.
- The decision to pop them off when I did was correct. We were lucky to get back under our own steam and if the wind had picked up even slightly stronger than it did, we would have been faced with a nasty exit back at the White House "beach". Anyway so that's that. I'm not proud of what happened - we got into trouble because I failed to apply my brain before we left the beach. But at least we're out of the water in one piece. And the purpose of this story is to ensure that people learn from my mistake.
And many thanks to the NSRI for being there - if things had got worse, they were there, ready to help.