By Jody Baker
Cinch up your spray skirts, this story is a long paddle.
I’m sharing this misadventure to demonstrate the importance of staying calm and not letting problems compound and spiral out of control. We learned to keep a steady head in our training courses. And this was our first real life experience with serious trouble.
We are a group of four experienced sea kayakers. For 7 years we’ve practiced progressively more difficult and remote trips on the coast of British Columbia. We all have practice with assisted rescue, self rescue, navigation/dead reckoning, weather sense, etc. Over time we’ve developed confidence in extended ranges and a level of comfort in big open water.
Our trip was ambitious but well within our capacity. We would paddle out from Fair Harbor in Kyuquot Sound on the West Coast of Vancover Island to camp on Spring Island. Altogether it would be about 30 miles of paddling each way. One paddler was equipped with a dry suit, while the other 3 had wetsuits. Everyone has the standard equipment for expeditions: seaworthy boats loaded with camping gear for 6 days, charts with campsites marked, compasses, etc. We had one radio among the four of us.
As we set out from Fair Harbour the weather forecast was pretty grim: steady rain for days but windy. The weather service was predicting strong winds, up to 30 knots out on the open ocean. Our plan to head to Spring Island in exposed waters was quickly scrapped. We figured we could hunker down on the lee side of Rugged Point and explore from there if the weather allowed. We could monitor the weather on the radio, but there is usually a big difference between the forecast out in open water versus the Sound and its channels, which is usually much calmer. One side of an Island can be rough, the lee side like glass.
While the weather continued to worsen another problem emerged; our radio. We paddled about 7 nautical miles and camped the first night on Union Island and quickly discovered our new radio wasn’t working, which meant no weather updates. It turns out high mountains have a tendency to block radio signals. No weather forecasts left us heading into unknown water conditions.
The next day we moved on toward Rugged Point, another 7-8nm with no knowledge of the forecast,, ready to turn back if things got too rough for our most nervous paddler. The rain continued to pour and the three people in wetsuits were getting cold, which was worrisome. Coming around Union Island on the windward side exposed us to the open Pacific. There were some swells and chop but nothing we hadn’t handled before.And the weather was improving throughout the afternoon.
It warmed up a bit and we stopped for lunch and to change into warmer clothes in a magical little bay. After crossing Kyuquot Channel, a nautical mile of open water, we arrived safely at Rugged Point to a tidy campsite with a big beach. Our plan was to settle in for 5 nights for some local exploration, and move on if the weather improved. The first night was a bit windy and the surf started to churn more violently.
From Bad to Worse
The next day in the late afternoon we were doing some light rock-climbing when our companion took a hard fall. She had broken a rib and injured her neck from whiplash. Immediately we knew this was serious, and bad. Her breathing was labored and we knew that these types of things can go from bad to worse in a hurry. We rang for rescue on the emergency channel, but got nothing but silence on the radio. Throughout the evening her condition remained stable. But she wasn’t paddling out, that much was clear.
It was time to consider our options: we had an injured paddler, limited rations, and no comms, but were otherwise in good shape. Flagging down a fishing boat was considered, but the weather was so bad that there were no boats in sight. Our injured comrade suggested we tow her back to Fair Harbour. We’ve practiced tow lines before, had tow belts, and knew how to do it.
But that idea was quickly rejected: getting her into a boat would be difficult enough, and launching through the surf strenuous. But if she were to go over in rough water, she’d never get back in the boat. Viable landing spots, which were flat patches of gravel, were few and far between. The trip back was mostly miles of rugged rocks that were constantly pounded by the sea, She also only had a wetsuit, so any amount of time in the cold Pacific water would spell a quick and frigid fate. We decided that she should stay put in the campsite, warm and dry in her tent.
After some deliberation we calmly decided that the best option was for our two strongest paddlers to head back to Fair Harbour. Leave one paddler to care for our injured friend with the hope they could flag a boat.
Before the envoy could set out the weather started picking up. The wind started to howl over the point, with giant old growth trees whistling over our heads. Our tarps were snapping in the wind and the surf was rising on the beach, even on the lee side. There was a spring tide overnight and the surf was crashing a few metres from our tents. Nobody slept very much that night.
In the morning our luck finally started to turn for the better. The weather was settling, still raining off and on, but the surf had died down considerably. After a big pancake breakfast we turned to the beach and looked out at the sea. It looked doable from the beach.
The tide charts showed a big flood tide peaking at 2:00pm. Two of us, one with a dry suit, decided to go; it was now or never. The vanguard packed a tent, enough food for 24 hours, stove, and sleeping bags in case we were forced to shore. Our friend helped us launch past the surf before turning his attention back to our injured friend. The water was choppy with swells, and both of us were scared. Not so much of the water conditions, but scared about how much was at stake. We needed to get our injured friend to a hospital in Campbell River ASAP. It was 70km on logging roads and another 1.5 hours after that.
One Last Curveball
As we had hoped the conditions improved the further up the channel we paddled, to the point where we enjoyed a nice swell to our backs. With the tide, light tail winds and swell pushing us we were 3-4 knots without hard paddling.
During the return paddle nature decided to throw one last curveball at us. The two of us were paddling along calm waters when we caught a glimpse of an animal surface and dive back down. A minute later it comes up again, closer, and it’s not a seal, it’s a sea lion, close enough that we could hear it snort. It’s moving along side one of the kayaks, headed in the opposite direction; and it looks huge: as wide as the boat and almost as long. It raises its head to breathe just 18 inches from the boat, right at the cockpit.
Then it freaked out, turned its body over, raised its tail, spinned around and dived. Floating behind us it looked at us, and all three of us were thinking: WTF over? 18 inches to the left and he’d have knocked one of us over, and not the one wearing the dry suit. Crazy stuff can happen on the water; we were lucky once again.
We paddled the 13mi back to the village in just under four hours. After arriving we couldn’t send out a boat without us in it – we needed to be there to guide and help load our injured friend, gear and two boats left on the Point. There was no water taxi with kayak space available. The local band (Americans would say ‘tribe’) rescue unit didn’t answer the phone, nor did the RCMP rescue over in Zeballos.
Luckily a super nice guy came in from fishing and offered to go back out with one of us and help. He worked charter fishing for 30 years and he’s now “fishing for his band” as he put it. He could handle a boat which was good because getting all the gear, two big sea kayaks and an injured person into a fishing boat was quite the ordeal. The surf was rough, and , the boat deck was high. Our captain couldn’t get too close to the beach and the tide was running out. The dry suit paid for itself 10 times over in that situation. To our savior Allen, Thanks! You’re the best and we’re sorry you were late for supper.
After several hours we managed it unload our friend and gear and collapsed in our warm, dry, cabin by 8:00pm or so. We had good luck follow bad and we’re all feeling a bit more confident and competent. Our friend received treatment for her cracked rib and took the next two weeks to recover. She’s looking forward to our next trip.
- Know the area and do your research. We should have known our radios wouldn’t work.
- Wear dry suits; they’re worth the money.
- Bring an SOS GPS or satellite phone.
- Most of all, when you get into trouble, stay calm and don’t panic.
If you enjoyed Jody’s story consider taking a gander at his Instragram page where you can keep tabs on his latest adventures around Vancouver Island and British Columbia.