Tuesday, October 8, 2013

When It Hits the Fan


Corrado asked me if I’ve ever been scared while kayaking.  

“Sure,”  I told him, and shared amazing stories that you can read about in my book.

This morning I met Corrado again for a 2nd rolling lesson.  This time, he brought another student.  So we got our gear together and headed out.  

We had two sprayskirts between the three of us.  The boats were 12 foot fiberglass kayaks, sufficient for all of our needs except maybe in that they did not have front bulkheads or any kind of flotation, only in the back.  Sort of like the boat that I swamped in the Hudson all those years ago, except that one at least had some foam in the front.

I brought a bilge pump and my Greenland Storm as a spare paddle.  I mentioned while putting in, as part of the lesson, the importance of having a spare paddle in any group.  There was no tow rope which should also be in every group, so I didn’t mention that.  

We all had life jackets but Corrado had his stuffed in his cockpit with him. I gave Corrado a hard time about it, and he explained to me that it chafed his neck.

I didn’t want to be too pushy because, after all, I was a guest and they go kayaking here all the time in their own fashion.

I was wearing one of the two sprayskirts and Corrado’s friend was wearing the other, though it was entirely ornamental as it lay limply on his lap.

We paddled out of the Lega Navale port (40.834496,14.255398) and swung a right towards Castel Dell'Ovo.  The castle sits on an island separated from the mainland by a short bridge.  On one side of the bridge there is a small harbor where the water was completely flat, protected from the wind and waves by the island.

As we paddled under the bridge we found the other side (40.829013,14.247298) exposed to the elements.  There were both giant rocks at the base of the island and the pier, and a line of partially submerged rocks that thundered with the pounding of the waves.

I went through first, then turned around to make sure my students navigated it successfully as well.  After that, while the swells were sometimes high, there were not breaking waves away from the pier and we had smooth paddling to the beach we had decided to train at.

The training went well.  Corrado, now on lesson two, was progressing smoothly and his friend was learning about hip flicks with great commitment.

A few hours passed and It was time to go back.  I was not wearing a spray so that both of my students could have theirs.  I looked over; at least Corrado was wearing his life jacket.

We began paddling back.  We were tired from all the learning.  The waves had gotten higher.  Corrado went through the rough spot before the bridge first.  He got side whaled by the sort of wave that would have capsized me when I was first learning support strokes.  He stayed upright as the breaking wave passed into, and then under him just a couple of feet from the rocks.

Then, on the backside, he capsized.

I sprinted to him.  In the kind of surf he was in, the right move was to tell him to grab one of the boats, hook on my tow rope, and get him the hell out of there.

I didn’t have a tow rope.  Plan B is called a contact tow.  I could tell him to hold onto my boat while I rest my weight on his bow to paddle us out while holding his boat in my armpit.  With no front bulkhead, his bow had take on a lot of water and might not support my weight.  I also have trouble leaning over without taking water into my own boat.  I pulled his boat onto mine to get the water out.  A wave hit us.  I threw his kayak aside as I watched Corrado get thrown perilously close to the rocks and my own kayak was moved substantially in that direction.

“Corrado!”  I called.  “Grab my bow.”

“No,”  He said.  “Go for the boat.”

“Get out of the water.  Can you climb up on that rock?”  I yelled over the surf.

He began to climb as I turned around and went for his boat.  The front of half of his boat was now entirely swamped and underwater.  Over my shoulder I saw Corrado was not able to climb onto the rock.

I went back for Corrado.  First we’d get him safe and then worry about the boat.

Corrado saw that I was paddling towards him and then began a powerful front crawl in my direction.  I put my bow right next to him so that he could grab it.  He swam right past me towards the sinking kayak.

A young man on the sea wall was ready to jump in and help us.  “Stay right there.”  I yelled.  “We may need your help in a moment.

Corrado, his kayak, and I were now slightly removed from the thunderous spot of doom.  We needed to get his bow on top of my kayak to get the water out of it.  His stern floated above the water pointing towards the sky and his bow speared straight down.  Getting it near the surface wasn’t too hard.  But getting it above the surface was impossible.

Ordinarily I could put my combing underwater and then scoop his boat up while righting myself, but without a skirt I would swamp my own boat.  We tried to lift his boat for a moment longer before I decided that our priority needed to go back to getting Corrado out.

“Corrado, get out!”

There were now a couple of young men that had climbed down the rocks.  When he swam over they helped him out.  He turned around, and got back in to grab the boat from a couple of meters away.

Through a colossal feat of strength, the three of them managed to get the water out of his boat.  Corrado explained to them that they only need to lift by the bow and could brace the stern against the water.  If I wasn’t so freaked out, I would have been proud, because I taught him that.

He got back in his boat saying that he was fine.  His paddle long gone, I handed him mine and pulled out my Greenland Storm for my own use.  We paddled under the bridge where Corrado's friend waited for us.  He had the lost paddle.

Corrado was fine.

“Remember how you asked me if I’ve ever been scared paddling?”


“Just now, that’s the most scared I have ever been.”

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