Getting Started: Kayak Skills Class
Melissa Spangler’s Journal
Kayak Skills Class
After returning from my San Juan Islands kayaking trip, I had a hesitation in my paddling and bracing that hadn’t been there before. The Wednesday skills training class was the first time I attempted rolling in over 1-1/2 months. I had delayed practicing rolls while I was using the semi-drysuit because it wasn’t meant to keep water out during rolling practice sessions; rolling practice became a soggy water-logged event that became more challenging as my suit filled with water. The weather was warm and the lake was like bathwater so I decided to try my wetsuit again. I wore the Farmer-John with a wicking T-shirt. Many Kayak Academy alumni showed up on this lovely evening. I mentally went through rolling techniques prior to my first attempt. I hadn’t rolled in the Looksha Elite, but had successfully rolled the Chatham and was looking forward to the session.
I donned my dive mask, positioned myself for a roll and leaned into the water. I made two failed attempts before deciding to wet exit. If I couldn’t complete a successful roll, it was even more important that I master a wet exit and re-entry. I tried the Cowboy Scramble style re-entry without use of a paddle float and made it back into the kayak. After pumping excess water from the cockpit I reattached the spray skirt and tried again. After the second attempt I realized that I was literally falling out of the kayak with my hindquarters coming out of the seat, my knees spread wide to try to maintain contact with the cockpit. With my body falling out of the kayak, I was getting twisted away from the kayak, making it difficult—and what felt like near impossible—for me to complete the roll. I finished with another wet exit and this time I headed to the shore to dump the excess water.
Various kayakers that evening were practicing different skill sets around the lake. Martin was nearby also practicing rolls and mastering the technique. With each of my unsuccessful attempts, doubt started to form and I couldn’t shake the feeling of unease after my scare in rough water in the islands. I thought, “This is it,” and positioned myself, as securely as possible and started the roll. The first attempt was incomplete so I repositioned myself underwater and tried again. Not quite there. I tried a third time and wasn’t able to complete the roll. At this point, I was running out of air and had to make a quick wet exit. While I was upside down I ran my hands along the coaming to grab the spray skirt loop but I couldn’t find it. Although I had my dive mask on for the practice session, I typically keep my eyes closed so I can practice with similar conditions to a real-world situation. I opened my eyes, didn’t see the loop and started to panic. I thrust my body out to the side and up and was able to take a quick breath as my head broke the surface. I knew that other paddlers were spread out around the lake and wasn’t sure if Martin was within earshot as I banged my hands on the bottom of my kayak as a signal for distress. No one heard the banging, or noticed my uncontrolled thrashing. I still couldn’t find the spray skirt loop, so I pushed my right hip sideways as hard as I could since my legs were already falling out of the seat; this released the spray skirt. I pulled the skirt from the coaming and lunged for the surface. I grabbed the overturned kayak for support and rested my head on it as my chest heaved with fresh air filling my hungry lungs. I was relieved to be upright, but also frightened at how close I was to a potential disaster. Thankful for each breath, I side-stroked toward the shore with my kayak in tow. I’d had enough for one evening.
As I reviewed the incident in my mind, the odd thing was that in that moment of sheer panic when I opened my eyes, I didn’t see the loop. It’s possible that it got tucked in, but I questioned myself about this because after George and Bob’s training I am a stickler about checking and double-checking the loop before I even start to paddle. Nonetheless, I couldn’t find it in that moment and had to bail with another method.
I certainly learned another lesson here. It really made me think more about safety aspects. It scared me for a week or two, and frankly writing the journal was an eerie feeling all over again, but after a brief break I attended another skills training, asked questions, practiced and felt confident again, although perhaps a bit more respectful of the elements. I still crave more.
Notes from Christopher Cunningham, Sea Kayaker editor
Just before we received this entry from Melissa we put a note in our e-newsletter to direct readers to the online article by Doug Lloyd from our April 2003 issue. In “Entrapments and Exits” Doug described the very problem that Melissa encountered. Practicing wet exits should be a top priority, especially for novice kayakers. Any spray skirt you use to seal yourself into a kayak should be easily released with one hand. If you change kayaks or skirts, test the new combination for its easy release. Be particularly attentive if you switch from a plastic kayak to a composite kayak. The trimmed edge of a composite rim can be much more “grippy” than a rounded rim found on many plastic kayaks.
As Melissa discovered, on occasion the drill doesn’t go according to plan or as practiced. Inadvertently tucking the grab loop under the spray deck is a common error, often discovered when you come ashore, sometimes the cause of panic when you capsize and have to bail out. If you have only one well-practiced drill for a wet exit, panic is a likely response to the unexpected. When you next practice wet exits—with a partner standing by—work on releasing the spray deck without using the grab loop. (If you decide to practice without a partner don’t tuck the grab loop under to simulate the real emergency!) There are several ways around a missing grab loop. Grab the side of the spray deck along the side where it lies along a relatively straight section of the coaming. It’s much easier to pull it around the lip of the coaming there than it is at the forward end. Alternatively try pushing a fist into the deck to get its edge to curl around the coaming. If you can get a knee through the cockpit opening you may be able to push hard enough to pop the spray deck free.
Melissa discovered she was able to “swim” to the surface to get a breath of air. With practice you may find you can do a sidestroke while still seated in the kayak, coming up for air with alternate strokes.
By adding a few back-ups to your wet-exit routine you won’t be pushed into panic by the “now what do I do?” experience that happens when your standard routine doesn’t go as expected.