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August 9, 2007

Dixon Entrance, Anatomy of a Capsize


Day 40

Dixon Entrance, Kah Shakes Cove to Tongass Island

23 miles

Beautiful sandy beach at Kah Shakes Cove

The short story: We had a fabulous day paddling in great sunny weather around an exposed section of coast in fun, challenging conditions. Around Cape Fox, an over-enthusiastic Nick goes for a surf, applies his paddle incorrectly, flips his boat, misses his Eskimo roll twice, exits said boat, swims, and self rescues, climbing back in. Becky is soon alongside and helps stabilize the boat while Nick, laughing and grinning now, pumps the boat dry. We all enjoy a break on a sheltered nearby beach, CACKLE and chatter with excitement, then continue on to Tongass Island where Wild Turkey bourbon is applied to one wounded ego and two courageous companions. Overall, it was one of the best days of the trip! No, REALLY, it was one of the best days yet. We had fun, things went awry, we dealt with it and carried on, still having fun and still safe, happy that we'd trained for such an occasion.

The long story (ad nauseam) is below:

Sunset at Kah Shakes

What a day today!! Some of the best paddling we've done yet, and definitely the wildest stretch of coast we've seen. Headed out of Kah Shakes Cove (the site of an abandoned native village) around 7am to beat the wind and waves. We're in Dixon Entrance now, a section of coast that is exposed to the open pacific. For the first time in the trip we can look to the west and see only water on the horizon. We can also feel the swell and surge of the Pacific. Today there is bright sun, sparkling water, perhaps a two foot swell, and light winds out of the S-SW. We were hoping for the forecast NE tailwind but it was not to be today.

The shoreline here is gnarled. Rocky, craggy, stunted trees, offshore rocks and reefs, and lots of kelp beds. Where the rocks give way to beach we can see the gleam of bright white sand. Great paddling in the surge, scooting in and out of rocks and islets, lifting and falling with the swell.

Becky paddling in the morning's stellar conditions. We traded boats for the morning.

We're low on water so we spend the morning looking for a creek behind the walls of weed covered rocks. One promising spot lures us in, but only reveals a lagoon that fills with the high tide. Low tide now has it draining salt water back into the sea.

We're lucky to have such great weather for this exposed section. After nearly a month of clouds and rain the bright sun is a welcome surprise. We're going on nearly a week of sunshine, unbelievable! Tides lately have been high in the morning and high in the evening blessing us with short gear and boat carries.

We pass Foggy Bay and its long white sand beach. There is a small Bayliner anchored just off the beach and two figures combing the sands. Continuing south the coast just keeps getting rockier, but is consistently indented with deep, narrow inlets backed by sand. Perfect camping and rest spots. Plenty of places to land should the need arise.

After chasing our Japanese friend, Shinya, for a few hours we duck into a bay for a break on a white beach. A small gillnet fishing boat pulls into the adjacent bay while we sip tea and munch on pilot bread, salami and cheese. No lack of company even on this remote section of coast.

Tree Point Light

Heading out after our break we're nearing Cape Fox and a turn to the east and into more protected waters. The seas have become noticeably bumpier and the breeze has picked up a bit, typical conditions for a Cape in the afternoon. We all agree that we're still comfortable in the conditions even though the tops of some of the larger swells have begun to chatter with whitewater. Paddling along Becky I notice the hull of her boat disappearing into the wave troughs as the crests pass between us. We're both having a fabulous time, playing in the waves, shooting gaps between islets, choosing a route through the conditions. Eventually, as we round the cape, the seas turn behind us and we enjoy the push the conditions give to our speed.

We pass behind Fox Island, just off the Cape, hooting with the thrill of paddling such a wild, remote stretch of coast in fun, challenging, but manageable conditions. I'd guess that the following seas and tailwind are boosting our speed to above 4.5 knots at this point, a nice ride. The biggest waves are maybe three feet with gently breaking tops, the sun is shining, green water sparkling, spray flying off the rocks, and 5 knots of tailwind pushing things along.

The last section around the cape offers us a choice. We can paddle around a cluster of rounded rocky mounds or shoot a 100' wide gap between the two largest rocks. Looking at the backs of the waves passing through the gap we don't see the telltale white streaks of breakers, so we decide to go for it.

Nearing the gap the waves steepen and most of the waves begin to break. Becky is in the lead with my boat right behind her, too close actually. Shinya, in his skin-on-wood Baidarka is a couple boat lengths behind and to my left. We're still grinning. I'm relishing the thought of perhaps catching a wave and surfing a bit. Beck is, prudently, paddling conservatively by coasting on the fronts of the waves and paddling on the backs, easing through the gap.

Soon we're between the rocks and the bottom is clearly visible in the wave troughs in front of us. It looks shallow. The first twinge of worry crosses my mind. Although the waves are only about 3 feet, things could get interesting. My boat accelerates down a wave and begins to broach or turn sideways on the face. No big deal, but rather than just bracing and edging I decide to correct the turn with a stern rudder paddle stroke.

Now, the stern rudder is not one of my strong points. Properly executed the paddler twists sideways to align the paddle shaft parallel to the boat. Then you raise your front hand which drops the rear paddle blade into the water near the back of the boat forming a rudder blade. Now the paddler can twist the paddle shaft and apply left or right directional control to the boat. The crux of the stroke, however, is proper alignment of the back paddle blade so it slices straight into the water. "NEUTRAL!" as my coach Leon would say. Well, finding neutral is where I have problems.

The moment my back blade enters the water, apparently not in neutral (tisk, tisk, tisk) it slices under the boat and I'm flipped. Boom! It happened so fast that all I really remember is looking up through the water towards the surface and thinking how beautifully green it was. I was absolutely stunned that I was upside down. "This isn't supposed to happen on this trip!!" And confused.

In retrospect, having flipped in a stern rudder stroke, my paddle was already in the set-up position to roll. But instead of going for a weak-side roll, I waste time dragging my paddle underwater to the other side of the boat to set-up on my strong side. Now, when I hip snap and come up, I'm short on air, my head comes up first, I get a breath, but flip back upside down. I've just committed the cardinal sin of rolling. "HEAD COMES UP LAST!", Matt would say. I can hear my coaches clucking their tongues from here! I set-up again and try a second time, but its a weaker effort and I blow it.

So, I resort to the infamy of pulling my spray skirt off and exiting my boat. Oh, the shame! Ha,Ha,Ha! But now, on the surface, back in the sunshine, I can breathe. "HANG ON TO YOUR BOAT, HANG ON TO YOUR PADDLE!", Shawna's mantra is ringing in my ears. I flip my boat upright, straddle it and flop my butt down into the flooded cockpit. Oh look, there's my bailing sponge floating away, GRAB IT! I was in the water for maybe 45 seconds. Its only then that I see the yellow boat next to me. Somehow, Becky managed to get her boat turned around and paddle back to me while I was in the water. She rafts next to me and takes my paddle while I get situated. We've drifted close to the rocky wall of a rounded islet and decide to paddle out of the gap before pumping my boat dry.

Just beyond the gap, the seas mellow considerably and we round a bend into a placid protected cove. We all grin, they laugh, and shake their heads while I CACKLE and pump out my cockpit. You'd be surprised just how stable a boat full of water can be! Shinya is muttering something in Japanese, probably questioning the sanity of his yammering partners. Just beyond the cove we find a small beach and take a short break. The only casualty of the event was the loss of my skull cap, a bummer to be sure, and a bruised ego.

We're well equipped for this situation, not only was I in a drysuit, but we still have 500mL of Wild Turkey with us. After a nice 3 mile downwind run to Tongass Island we land on a sandy beach and Becky breaks out in the TURKEY DANCE! Gobble, Gobble, Gobble!.

Seriously though, we feel pretty good about the whole thing. We're equipped for the situation, we're trained in how to rescue each other, and now we have some first hand experience doing it for real. The sea was kind to us today, and we've learned another lesson.

What a great day!!

(But, I promise Mom, we'll try to avoid such excitement in the future.)

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