Wednesday, February 29, 2012

To Roll or to Panic, that is the Question

A Sunday Roll

Last Sunday, Bent, Tine and I decided to paddle a tour on Odense Fjord. The weather was fantastic and Tine told me the water was about 2°C. This might sound very cold, but I am equipped with a neoprene long john and dry jacket, and as an exception I even had my neoprene gloves on (instead of the pogies I usually use). I tried falling in similar water temperatures and it is not all that bad.

The tour was relaxed, and with the February sun warming us we were having a great time.

At the end of the tour I wanted to try out rolling my kayak in the canal in front of the club house. It would be my first time I'd roll outside of the swimming pool and the first time to do it in my own kayak. I found it such an exciting prospect that I was willing to overcome the coldness of the water. I felt like I had 50% chance for the roll to succeed and expected that I would need to do a wet exit.

And as a back up, I had my rolling buddy Bent positioned ready to come to my aid. Always good to have a fail safe.

I went into setup position, took a deep breath and dived down into the murky water.

As usually, fear accompanied me, but this time the situation was very unusual indeed: it was so dark I could not even see my own kayak. That felt frightening! When looking to the surface I could see some dim yellowish light. I didn't wait. I immediately get started initiating my roll. I stuck my paddle through the surface up in the air, to get the paddle into bracing position. But even more scary: I had the impression I couldn't reach through the surface! It was dark and I wasn't aware that my thick isolating gloves removed all feeling. I had no idea if my paddle was above or under water. I tried to roll anyway, and in my haste I made a beginners mistake: getting my head up first, and thus getting pulled down again by the kayak. I tried it again and it failed again. Time for me to make the exit, I thought, and groped for the grab loop of the the spray shirt. I couldn't find the loop!! I groped some more and then it happened: I panicked! I stopped groping and tried getting out the kayak anyway, but could not: that spray shirt is really a tight fit! I started flailing my arms, trying to get out and up to get air. I was beating my arms in the water, gulping for air and drinking canal water.

But what had happened in the mean time was, that during my rolling trails my boat had turned away and on top of that I had decided to do my panic splashing on the opposite side of my boat where I was supposed to surface. It felt really like a very long time before Bent came to save me (In a crazy way I was afraid he'd never come).

In the end Bent could grapple the cockpit from the other side doing a "hands of god" rescue,and some time later Tine came in with her kayak so I could right myself completely up. Bent went to fetch my paddle that was taken by the current.

I quickly recovered really, and laughed a bit at what happened ("you see! the cold was no problem! ha ha!").


I cannot just shrug off what has happened. In fact when I wake up in the morning it is the first thing that crosses my mind.

I am not worried about the roll, that didn't work out. I expected that. But that I could not get out of the kayak, that really scares me. I cringe to think that I just as well could have tried it out all by myself. That would have been some drama!

The wet exit should be sure and secure, but it wasn't.

It was not that the grab loop was tucked under the stray shirt ---that is something that could easily happen! I even knew it was not tucked in - I checked that beforehand. Instead the darkness, the insensitivity caused by neoprene gloves and the onset of panic made my wet exit fail. And when the panic overtook I stopped looking for any solutions.

On the positive side I am very lucky indeed! While friends were closely supervising, I have had an extreme experience. One that has shown me issues of wet exit and has shown me what panic is and can do.

As an immediate solution I will hang something largish and heavy on the grab loop. That should help me see that the grab loop is below shirt, and it will make it easier to find that loop even in extreme conditions.

Another way to deal with the panic, is to I practice wet exit. Preferably finding ways of releasing that spray shirt without using the grab loop. I am sure it must be possible without gloves on. If it is not possible to get out with neoprene gloves, that won't put them on again.


Apart from learning how to wet exit in all conditions, there are some more abilities that can be learned for extra safety. One interesting one seems to learn to swim with a kayak. That way you at the same time learn to breath while being capsized. Learning how to breath takes buys you time and the chance for panic is greatly reduced. And giving you time to think for a solution for whatever the problem is your not getting out.

A list of techniques I want to be learn are:
  • wet exit
  • wet entry
  • swimming with the kayak
  • rolling
  • hand rolling
I am not the only one that has had wet exit mess up, and trawling through the Internet you'll catch even more horrific stories. A number of very good articles about recovery can be found at the "University of Sea Kayaking".

Furthermore there are some interesting reads about panic (like wikipedia), but one particular article I have now read and reread.

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