Close Call – where was the safety gear?

Thursday, 04 March 2010 08:31 | Written by 
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Monday, 1st March, 2010 saw one of the strongest southeasters of the season hit Cape Town.  Cape Point was registering an average of 40kt, gusting to 46kt.  Roman Rock lighthouse showed an average of 39kt.

There’s a right way and a wrong way…

Two unidentified paddlers (from the UK, according to the NSRI), one a novice, decided to launch at 3 Anchor Bay near the Cape Town CBD.  Understand that at 3 Anchor Bay, the southeaster blows OFF shore.  Also, because it had been blowing for several days, an upwelling had brought frigid water to the surface.

So they were venturing out into a strong 25-30kt (and getting stronger) offshore wind and very cold water.

The two paddlers were wearing baggies; one of them had a cap...  They had no PFDs; no paddle leashes; no body leashes; no cellphone; no radio and no flares.

Almost immediately, the novice paddler fell off and had difficulty getting back on his ski.

Increasing in strength all the time, the wind was pushing them straight out to sea.


Lucky for them

Luckily, one of the 3 Anchor Bay regulars had noticed them and alerted the coxswain of the Bakoven NSRI station who happened to be in the vicinity.

He immediately put the NSRI station on standby, while one of the onlookers, experienced 3 Anchor Bay regular Alan Storey, paddled out to the two men to try and help them.

“By the time I got to them – and they were now about a km out to sea,” Alan said, “they had already lost both paddles and one of the skis.  The more experienced guy had his buddy lying on top of the ski while he stayed in the water.

“I had taken some tie-downs with the idea that I’d tow them back.  But by the time I got there, they were already sufficiently hypothermic that the guy couldn’t grasp what I telling him.”

NSRI Activated

Alan realised the seriousness of the situation and used his cellphone to alert the NSRI who then activated their rescue teams.  NSRI Bakoven launched their rescue craft Spirit of Rotary – Table Bay; the Metro Red Cross AMS helicopter responded, NSRI rescue vehicles and the Metro Ambulance and Rescue Services also responded.

The Transnet National Ports Authority diverted a fishing trawler to the scene.  The captain positioned the vessel to windward of the surfskis providing shelter from the strengthening wind.

“Every minute seems like an hour out there,” said Alan.  “I wasn’t particularly worried because I knew that help was on the way – so I hung on and tried to warm the one guy up.”

Eventually a smaller fishing boat also arrived on the scene and took the two men on board.  Alan then paddled back into the wind back to 3 Anchor Bay.

When the NSRI’s Spirit of Rotary – Table Bay arrived a little while later the men were transferred and delivered back to shore where they were examined and treated for mild hypothermia.

Nett Result…

…was two cold paddlers; one lost ski; two lost paddles and a fair amount of fuel and effort expended.

Safety Gear

These paddlers were lucky.  Had they not been observed, they’d have been blown further offshore and would have died of hypothermia after another hour or so in the cold water.

These were not appropriate conditions for a novice; they should not have been on the water at all.

But, assuming they were at least competent, what gear should they have had?

  • They should have been dressed appropriately.  This means keeping at least your torso warm with, say, a wicking shirt and a wind-proof jacket on top.  Sleeveless paddling jackets are available and are commonly used.  Paddlers may think they look cool when they go out in a speedo or baggies and nothing else.  But when they do it in a 30kt offshore wind, they actually look (and are) moronic.
  • A PFD is an absolute must.  The reasons are obvious.
  • The next most important safety consideration is not to lose your ski.  In a strong wind, if you lose contact with the ski, it will roll away at more than 5kph.  You cannot swim that fast.  And the reason you don’t want to separate from your craft is that a ski is much easier for rescuers to spot on the surface of the sea than a paddler.  So you need a leash – tethering you to the ski.  Ankle and body leashes are available in most paddling shops that sell skis.  If you haven’t got a purpose-made leash, use a tie down.  YOU MUST NOT LOSE YOUR SKI.
  • Next – you need to be able to signal for help.  Pencil flares and smoke flares are very effective and are easy to carry.
  • If you’re out in wild weather, you need to understand that even a ski is difficult to spot.  Rescue boats heading into wind and waves have very restricted visibility – I’ve been in an NSRI boat heading into waves.  Sheets of spray fly over the boat and you cannot see anything.  From a helicopter, a white ski gets lost in the white horses.  This means that you will probably see the rescue craft long before they see you – and you need to be able to communicate with them.  Therefore you MUST have a cellphone in a waterproof pouch – or a waterproof radio.  I carry an Icom M71 handheld VHF.  It slips into the pocket of my PFD, I don’t even think about it.  But it’s easy to use – we’ve tested it (and cellphones) with the NSRI.  They work.
  • Finally, a paddle leash is recommended too.  And if your body leash is coiled, try not to use a coiled paddle leash; rather use light rope because it won’t tangle as easily with the body leash.  I’ve used the combination for years and never had a problem.  Why use a paddle leash?  When you’re helping someone else, it’s great to be able to let your paddle go so you can use both hands.

There's other gear that people carry too. A foam wedge to jam the rudder straight if a rudder cable breaks; a signalling mirror; a space blanket which works well either to stave off hypothermia (by wrapping it around your upper body) or as a signalling device - the sun reflects off it making it easy to spot from a helicopter.  But the basics are: be skilled, don't lose the boat, have comms gear.

A lot of gear?

Jeez, what a lot of gear!  But wait, we’re not talking about paddling behind the backline on a warm, still summer’s day.  We’re talking extreme conditions – 30-40kt of wind; cold water.

In such conditions... you need the gear.


We are lucky in South Africa that we don’t have very restrictive legislation when it comes to our sport.  We can do radical downwind paddles in gale-force conditions and no-one has the right to stop us.  But with that freedom comes responsibility.

If we act stupidly and put other people such as the NSRI at risk because of it, then bodies like SAMSA (the South African Maritime Safety Authority) will eventually take action and will start imposing restrictions.

So it behoves us to minimise the risks by making sure that we recognise our limitations; that we use appropriate gear and that, for example, we let the NSRI know when we’re doing a radical downwind run.  (I’ve never had any negative feedback from the NSRI; instead they’ve just been grateful for the situational awareness that a pre-run SMS gives them.)

Mario’s Comment

Mario Grazziani was at 3 Anchor Bay and watched the drama unfold.

“I always thought that it was un-cool to wear a PFD and carry leashes and other safety equipment,” he said.  “But slowly I have been converted due to a fright or two and now I paddle with the whole lot.  A wipe out leaves me grinning and I certainly don’t get freaked out when I’m dunked since I feel well prepared.

“Hats off to Alan and his effort and to the NSRI who do an incredible job,” he added.

As Mario was leaving the parking lot he saw two others making their way to the slipway with canoes…again totally ill equipped against the now raging South Easter.

“Had to step in and tell them to put their boats back on the roof racks,” said Mario. “Felt like a real old fart!”  [Editor: Bravo Mario - it takes guts to tell people when they're being dumb.  You might well have saved their lives.]

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