The following article was written by Frank Eichenlaub of the Berrien Paddlers Club. He attended my risk management class back in the beginning of August. I didn’t want to shape, or edit Frank’s article in any way so that he could draw his own conclusions and see where he went with it. While a river paddle in high wind doesn’t sound very dangerous to the sea kayaking crowd, the situation was very real for Frank. And it’s important to keep in mind that each of us has our limit.
A couple of weeks ago eleven Berrien Paddlers met at the St Joseph harbor for our
weekly evening paddle. We planned to go out on Lake Michigan or up the Paw Paw
River. The waves and wind on the Lake were more then we wanted contend with so we
decided on the Paw Paw.
The group split into two groups: Fast and slow. About an hour up the river the slow group
decided to turn around. I called one of the guys in the fast group and told him about our
plan. The fast group would continue up the river for a while longer and them turn around
and meet us slow guys in the harbor.
We paddled back to the harbor and moved across the turning basin toward the
Blossomtime Bridge and our take-out site, just on the other side of the bridge. As planned
the fast group met up with us. Three of the fast guys zipped ahead, and landed. Two
loaded up and left. One stayed behind on the beach to wait for his ride.
The remaining eight paddlers moved across a choppy and windy turning basin toward
the bridge. Three were inexperienced and two of those were very tired. One had been
complaining about a sore shoulder. I had asked her several times if she wanted a tow.
Each time she said the she was all right.
As the eight of us moved closer to the bridge the wind became stronger and the water
choppier. Going under the north bridge arch we were hit by a blast of wind that stopped
the group and pushed the tired paddlers backwards. We regrouped and tried to push
through the arch again. The wind stopped the tired folks again.
I stopped the group and told them to let the wind push them back from under the bridge
arch and then paddle to a sheltered spot out of the wind, but yards from the arch. I told
the tired paddler with the sore shoulder I was going to tow her and clipped on.
As we were paddling down the river I had been telling Pat, my wife, about the Risk
Management class I had taken from Keith. I told her about Keith saying that in an
emergency situation you don’t ask people to do stuff, you tell them. “I’m going to tow
you.” Or, “Get out of the wind, over there.”
With the wind blowing and the water choppy I slipped into Tunnel Vision. I had a plan:
I was going to tow this paddler to the beach and come back for the other folks waiting on
the other side of the bridge. What I didn’t do was to tell the other six people what I was
going to do. Off I went with the paddler in tow.
Pat read my mind and organized the others. She had one guy tow the other tired paddler
to the beach. She sent an experienced guy with the other inexperienced paddler. Everyone
plowed ahead and landed on the beach.
Keith asked me to write about the experience and to relate it to a couple of things he
taught in the Risk Management class: SAFE and CLAP. SAFE: Stop, Assess, Formulate,
Execute. CLAP: Communication, Line of Sight, Avoidance, Position.
I did the SAFE portion mostly OK. What I didn’t do was to stop and clearly let the group
know what I was going to do.
How did I do on CLAP? Communication: We had not communicated about what we
would do in an emergency situation. Line of Sight: Three of the group had disappeared
around the bridge. They were strong paddlers and as I had pushed my way through the
bridge arch I could see them on the beach. The other eight of us were in a tight group.
Avoidance: No way could we have avoided the wind and waves under that arch. We
were in a harbor with no other landing spots. We had to get through to our landing area.
Position: I was the closest thing to a leader the group had. The group was tight around me
so I was able to communicate a basic plan, carry out part of it, while Pat picked up clues
from me and organized the group when I had left towing a tired paddler.