I took a kayak safety class several years ago. Ben has learned most everything he knows about kayaking from me. While we were at Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands, I learned our favorite outfitter, Trek & Trail offered a safety class. We’d paddled with them last year on a tour to see the famous sea caves In Lake Superior, with Bergen, one of the guides leading the tour. When we registered for the class we were delighted to see Bergen was one of the instructors.
Lake Superior is temperamental. The water may start out glass-calm and minutes later storm clouds form kicking up high winds and 3-foot waves. The lake is deep, its water is astonishingly clear and very cold. In the heat of summer the water temperature near shore is tolerable, but in deeper water it rarely gets much above 60 degrees. In water like that hypothermia can set in in minutes, making a wetsuit an essential piece of equipment. Trek & Trail provides wetsuits and sea kayaks for their classes. That makes sense since they are the best type of boats for big water like Lake Superior, but our personal boats are more pedestrian. We own both sit-on and sit in recreational kayaks.
There are lots of specialized kayaks, but for this story the important thing to know is that a recreational kayak is to a sea kayak as a SUV is to a sport car. Recreational kayaks come in different lengths, ride higher on the water and are stable but slower. They have a wider cockpit for ease of entry and comfy seats with a tall seat back. Most recreational boats can hold you and a combination of other things; a cooler, fishing gear, kids and/or dogs of all sizes–the SUV of paddle craft. Sea kayaks are long (up to 20’), narrow and typically have rudders. They are fast and good for slicing smoothly through rough water. They usually have watertight bulkheads, sit low in the water and have low cut seats to accommodate a spray skirt. Entering a sea kayak requires sliding in feet first and squirming around to get adjusted. Sea kayakers talk about “wearing” their boats; they are intentionally a close fit to ensure a good ride—the sports car model. I should mention at this point in the story that Ben dislikes physical confinement. Think theater seats with no legroom, a cramped sports car cockpit or a sea kayak.
On the day of the class, low clouds hung over the water with a light drizzle and wind had kicked up small waves. After an hour of lecture about the basics of boating etiquette, maritime safety and the like we donned wetsuits, zipped on PFDs and headed for the boats.
We were required to perform three tasks on the water: 1. demonstrate various paddle strokes; 2. perform a wet exit (meaning: tip your boat upside down and get out); and 3. perform a self-rescue (meaning: get back in your skinny boat while floating in deep water). Steps in the wet exit are: 1. flip your boat upside down (with you in it) and remain composed under water; 2. bang on the hull 3 times. This is to let people know you are conscious. 3. pull off your spray skirt, come out of the boat; 4. poke your head triumphantly above water. Oh, and do all these steps upside down under water while also hanging onto your paddle and boat. Once you are outside of your boat bobbing in the water like an apple, you are to perform the self-rescue. The steps for self-rescue are: 1. hook your foot in the cockpit of the boat so it doesn’t drift off to Canada without you; 2. reach under your upside down boat and pull the paddle float bag from its location (which involves groping because its underwater) and blow it up; 3. slide the inflated bag onto the end of your paddle and clip it shut; 4. holding your paddle between your knees, flip your boat right side up; 5. put your paddle on top of your now-upright boat with the paddle float in the water like an outrigger; 6. holding the flat paddle blade on the top of the boat, launch yourself up and out of the water and land on top of your boat belly-first; 7. stick your flailing feet into the cockpit and twirl rotisserie-style into the kayak seat; 8. bail your boat with your handy dandy bilge pump; 9. congratulate yourself and paddle away as if nothing happened. Easy-peasy.
By the time we headed out on the water the drizzle had stopped, the wind kicked up and the light chop had become definite waves. As we were heading into the lake, Ben looked grim. “This boat feels unstable, I can’t move enough to get situated,” he said. His boat rocked from side to side. The confining feel of the boat and the waves coming at him from the side were too much, and he became the first student to practice his wet-exit and self-rescue. Once he got sorted out, he pronounced himself done with the class and turned back with a Trek & Trail guide following to see him safely back on shore.
The class divided up into smaller groups, so I trailed after Bergen. He is a wiry young man, strong, agile and speaks with a bit of a surfer dude twang. I assumed like lots of people I’d met from the area that he was a transplant. It turns out that he grew up nearby. He learned to paddle, fell in love with kayaking and became a guide. When you talk to him it’s easy to see how he was hired. He looks at you with genuine interest, converses easily with good humor and most important for guiding work he is unflappable in the face of nervous clients.
We gathered around Bergen to start our practice. Friends, it was hard, hard work. The wind seemed determined to blow us out of the harbor towards open water, so we paddled furiously just to stay in place. The first woman to do her wet exit lost her bearings under water and panicked. Her head came up for an instant and she yelled for help. Bergen dove out of his kayak and was at her side in seconds, calming her to the point where she felt comfortable to try re-entry. When she wasn’t quite able to get it, he helped her get back in her boat and to shore.
It was my turn. By now the waves in the harbor were oscillating. I took a deep breath and with my paddle in a death grip, flipped. Even with a wetsuit, the water was shockingly cold. Underwater, I fell out of my boat entirely and came up next to it, sputtering. I bobbed around, groping the submerged boat for the paddle float and pulled it free. I blew it up and stuck it on the end of the paddle. Miraculously, I remembered to keep one foot hooked in the cockpit. I even managed to flip the kayak upright! All I had to do was get back in. Try as I might, I couldn’t get myself up on the boat. The water had different plans for me that day. A wave would shove my paddle off the boat deck, or the wind pushed the boat on top of me as I tried to propel myself out of the water. My class years ago had been on a sunny Ohio day in a bathwater-warm lake, very different from the cold restless water of Superior. One side benefit of all this exertion was that I no longer felt cold, but my energy was sapped. I struggled for a good 15 minutes until I was exhausted. At 69, every now and then my get up and go gets up and leaves.
All this time Bergen was watching over me and doing some cheerleading. “Remember to blow up both sides of the paddle float,” and “Aw, you almost got on your boat,” he said. When it became clear it just wasn’t going to happen that day, he got me back in my boat with a maneuver he called “dip-n-scoop.” He instructed me to turn my boat on its side (the dip) and as it filled with water, I was able to slip my legs in the cockpit and he righted me into the kayak (the scoop). I was told this maneuver is used when a paddler has lost consciousness–or in my case, old and feeble. Sea kayaks have watertight bulkheads front and back to prevent them from sinking, but they will take on quite a bit of water, so after I was righted I sloshed in several inches of water. Then I got lots and lots of practice with my hand operated bilge pump. Bergen held onto the hull until I got enough water out to stabilize my boat. I headed in. On shore, waves were hitting the beach. As a final reminder of who was the boss, the lake smacked me from behind when I was getting out of the kayak and I fell, getting an extra dose of sand in my wetsuit. Cussing, I crawled up onto the beach.
We turned in our gear and got dressed. The woman in my group who had panicked looked sad and told me she “just wasn’t cut out to be a sea kayaker.” I asked her about her boat and where she paddled, and it turned out that her paddling gear and experience was like mine. I made a comment about my age and lack of upper body strength. She told me that was nonsense because she was much younger than me (true, but ouch) and worked out with weights regularly, so if age and upper body strength was the key to success, we’d both been misled. We both agreed to practice more in our own boats and conquer the task.
Back at camp with an adult beverage, Ben and I got online and looked at videos featuring self-rescue techniques specifically for sit-on-top kayaks. There were some differences in technique, but the overall approach was the same. We decided to give it a try. A day or two later when the weather was sunny and wind was light we went back to Trek & Trail to rent wetsuits. Armed with our gear we headed out into the chilly water and we successfully performed a wet exit and self-rescue. We made a pact to practice at least a couple times in a paddling season.
Our safety class was revealing. We’ve paddled in cold water many times without much thought about what would happen if we tipped. We learned how vital it is to wear your PFD. Anyone who says “I don’t wear one because I’m a strong swimmer” is fooling themselves. Self-rescue has nothing to do with swimming. We both own Coastguard rated PFDs. I always have it with me when I paddle, but in recent years I’d gotten careless about wearing it consistently. Another lesson: One class isn’t enough, skills atrophy. Also, you can’t wait for a nice day to learn a skill, because you can’t count on mother nature to plan nice weather for you when you need to use the skill. You’ve just got to put in the work. As Bergen wisely says; “Respect the water and practice, practice, practice.”
Here are a few videos and sites with more information about safety I really liked.
Headwaters Kayak Sit in rescue video
Wet Exit blog from Sea Kayak Safety
3 thoughts on “Dip-n-Scoop”
Excellent read!! Thank you for providing detailed description of your experience!
Proud of you!! Wow! You have guts and determination! Lake Superior is incredible!! We kayaked in the Boundary Waters a couple of years ago, but hindsight tells me that we really weren’t prepared enough for that wilderness. Such a beautiful area, but one certainly needs respect and knowledge in order to fully enjoy and be safe.
Hi to Ben … keep on paddling! Kay Massman Helman
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Proud of you both! Well done 😘
Oh my God Pam. You are much braver than me. And I think Ben’s decision was very wise. ________________________________