Kayaker Rescued in Puget Sound Debrief

In the past few weeks we’ve been discussing rescues and various techniques for self-rescue. We’ve had some good discussion both here and on the two bigger community message boards Qajaqusa.org and Paddling.net about what will and won’t work for rescuing a sea kayak and why.

During this discussion I put forth the theory that a paddle float self-rescue is not a good solution for rough water. Someone posted a link of Kayaker Scott Redfern’s rescue in Puget sound. I erroneously assumed this was another example of a failed paddle float rescue. After reading the article in the paper, and then Scott’s Redfern’s Blog I will be the first to say I jumped to conclusions. A failed paddle float rescue was only one small fraction of the story.

The larger issue is a three-pronged issue. Training, skills development, and judgment.

Scott Redfern was brave enough to post his own recap of the whole rescue experience on his blog.

In reading through his post Scott Redfern outlined a series of somewhat serious miscalculations.

If you read Scott’s post you will find he made a series of very basic mistakes followed by some that are even more puzzling.

  1. Scott elected to head out onto open water without checking the forecast. This is really the biggie. No holds barred, this was foolish.
  2. Scott brought no signaling device that he mentioned. No strobes, no cell-phone, no VHF, no smoke, no signal mirror. Meaning when the ferry spotted him in the water, it was blind luck, not because he was well prepared and used any foresight whatsoever. In fact we might be discussing his death if the Issaquah hadn’t spotted him.
  3. Scott elected to wear a pair of gore-tex ski-bibs. Bibs in case you haven’t heard are prone to filling with water and dragging people to their doom.
  4. He also elected to wear ski-gloves and a ski jacket. Ski gloves and jacket provide literally nothing in the way of waterproof or insulation when immersed. All they would do is drag you down. For the record I tried it, because I too was cheap and foolish.
  5. He wore an Ironman wetsuit. While this was a great idea considering his other options. These wetsuits are not like surfer’s wetsuits and are no where near as insulating. They also don’t have hoods. Which from the video it appears he didn’t have a hat or neoprene hood that I could pick out.
  6. Scott also neglected either to purchase or wear a spraydeck for his kayak. This is the strangest part of the story that I can pick out because Scott’s description of why, “Taking on water is highly undesirable, but inevitable in these conditions.”. Apparently the idea of a spray deck hadn’t occurred as a necessity. We will get to why in a minute.
  7. Does Scott have any bracing ability? Never mind a roll, a low brace. When he says, “One hit from the side and I’m over and in. I did not want to go there.” It didn’t seem that he possessed that skill.
  8. Lack of self-awareness in contrast to the conditions. When Scott says: “Bear in mind that I have made downwind runs in 3-foot waves in high winds and it was tenuous at best. I’m not a novice and I’m no expert, but this was larger than I’d ever seen.” Normally I would allow a paddler, especially one who has been rescued to exaggerate as much as he/she likes about wave height. There was nothing in the video or the pictures to suggest four foot waves, Keeping in mind that a four foot wave is taller than an upright paddler seated in his kayak. The second part is the whole crux of the issue. Scott describes himself as not a Novice. If Scott is not a novice who in this world is?

Leaving out the five attempts at a paddle-float rescue which is commendable but proved futile. Scott Refern was most likely never trained to do a paddle-float rescue. So as some pointed out in my other post, this really demonstrates nothing about the paddle float rescue. It merely demonstrates that with no training, you are bound to get into trouble. For the record, Scott did some things absolutely correct. He had a wetsuit on. He stayed with his boat. Though some might argue swimming to shore that was maybe between 1000 yards to 500 yards might have actually been ok. I would say in his case sticking with the boat was a great idea. He was not truly on open water after all, he was on Puget sound and he was spotted quickly.

The real issue with any sort of activity is not knowing what you don’t know. This brings me to the whole point of the article. Without an exposure to training, rescues, skills, and even equipment you might not even realize how inexperienced you really are. Scott’s write up is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning Kruger effect is described thusly:

The Dunning-Kruger effect is an example of cognitive bias in which “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it”[1]. They therefore suffer an illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average.

This effect also known as the Homer Simpson Quotient.

Scott went out onto a tidally effected body of water with inadequate equipment, inadequate training, and inadequate judgement and was ceremoniously whipped on the behind by the sea. His life was saved by a chance sighting of a ferry. His write-up unfortunately doesn’t adequately describe the level to which he erred because of his own lack of experience.

The warmer seasons are upon us. If you are thinking about getting some training this season, start early. Derrick Mayoleth kindly wrote up a summer symposium guide. You certainly won’t be mocked for what you don’t know by anyone at any of these symposiums. But the Great Lakes, or the sea will certainly punish all foolishness with impunity as demonstrated in Scott’s case.

One Comment

  1. About six years ago, I was on a family vacation on the north shore of the St-Lawrence River, near Tadoussac, where the Saguenay river meets the St-Lawrence. Water there is about 38F even in late summer (due to the Labrador current). I've been around boats all my life (rowboats, canoes, power boats), and saw an advertisement for kayak rentals. Now I've never been in a kayak but I thought, "How hard can it be?" (Cue in the ominous background noises). I (and a friend) found the place in the village where the kayaking adventure was advertised, signed some "pro-forma" non-liability forms, and got a lift to the kayak rental place (about 5 miles up the coast). There, we were given shortie wet-suits to put over our regular summer wear, sized up for a PFD, and pointed to a double. We got some very basic instruction on how to steer (footpegs and rudder), and were free to go. There were a number of other people going out and we tagged along with them. We ended up paddling about 3000 yards offshore. There was no wind, the air temperature was in the 80's(F), and the waves were minimal. We spent a very exciting hour watching whales that came right up to our kayaks, and after, we paddled back, totally overcome by our very close proximity to the whales. We were also very, very lucky (God protects fools and little children, and we weren't children).

    1) We did not have appropriate wear for 38F water.

    2) We had no spray skirts.

    3) We had no signalling or bailing device.

    4) We had no clue how to actually paddle a kayak or steer it.

    5) We had no idea how to rescue ourselves if by chance we fell into the water.

    6) We would have been in serious trouble if there was any wind or wave action.

    And yet, here we were with a kayaking outfit that had at least another twenty newbies out on the water with two "guides". I guess they figured that our signing the non-liability forms absolved them of any consequences.

    The positive aspect to that experience was that I really, really enjoyed being in the kayak, and went through the steps of buying a recreational kayak, then a poly seak kayak and then learned that there was a lot more to the sport than I had imagined. But most people I know stop at the recreational kayak stage, and have no idea of how much they don't know. I think that's our challenge – to educate the public to both kayaking joys and dangers. There are far more recreational kayakers than there are "serious" sea kayakers, and in fact, I would rate Mr. Redfern's preparation better than most. Of course, totally inadequate, as you point out, with inadequate equipment, skills or knowledge, but at least he had some peripheral awareness. A lot of recreational kayakers I meet don't even do the preparations he did, and the only thing saving them from being statistics is that they are paddling on calm waters.