Surfski Rescue at the Gorge

Surfski Rescue at the Gorge

There’s been a lot of talk about surfski leashes and rescues recently, so I thought I would share a story about an incident we had a few days prior to the Gorge downwind Champs.

A group of us left from Viento to Hood River.  My 16 year old son Seth was with us and while he likes surfing waves he doesn’t like to train so he is not that fast.  Consequently Seth and I left ahead of the group to get a head start.

Things were going great and we were going through the Salmon Hatchery.  The waves getting big, the runs were fast and the wind was cranking.  I was barking fatherly coaching advice to Seth, he really likes it when I do this, (not).  But he was moving good and linking waves.  He caught a beauty but ended up wiping out.  He did a quick remount, but made the mistake that I often see people do which is rushing to put his feet foot well, instead of straddling the ski and getting lined up with the runs.  Consequently he was beam to the waves, unstable and swam again.  The wind grabbed his ski and stretched the leash.  Next thing he was yelling at me and his ski was detached and tumbling in my general direction.

I managed to get in the way of the runaway ski and I put my leg into its cockpit.  I tried to swing up wind but I couldn’t turn past “beam on”.  I was paddling on the downwind side, with an extended paddle, but the wind kept trying to flip Seth’s ski into my lap.  Seth was drifting down river with the current, and I was blowing upstream with the 20 knots of wind.  Sailboarders were zooming back and forth and Seth was disappearing into the valleys and cresting over the tops of the waves.  It was here I was contemplating on ditching the brand new Think Evo II Elite, and I was weighing the value of ski vs son.  Kinda like “Sophie’s Choice”.  Fortunately I didn’t have to make that decision as the rest of the group arrived on scene.

Warren, Shane, Daryl and Russ to the rescue.  One of the guys maneuvered beside Seth and told him to grab onto the stern handhold, but this wasn’t going to work and creates a potential for serious damage to the hand.  Just imagine your hand in a tight handhold with the ski bouncing up and down and trying to catch a wave.  I was trying to yell directions but with the wind it was pointless.  Shane came by me and I asked him to put Seth on his back deck.  It would be like a mosquito landing on the back of a grizzly bear – Shane barely knew Seth was there.

When Shane maneuvered by Seth he climbed on the back deck with his legs dangling in the water.  Shane also kept his legs in the water for stability.  The only thing that was going wrong here was that Seth was lifting his head high off the deck to see what was going on.  I was yelling for him to keep his head on the deck, but again the wind was prevented the message from being sent.  This is similar to most of my communication with Seth.  “Clean your room”  Seth: “ I can’t hear you the wind is too loud”

At this point Daryl pulled alongside me, upwind and put his foot into the cockpit.  This made the run away ski easier to handle, and with both of us canoe paddling on our respective sides I think we could have paddled up wind, but by this time Shane was making ground downwind and we intersected.  We got Seth back into his ski.  Re-attached his leash and we had made a successful rescue.   Seth was un-phased and he was back catching waves.

Lessons Learned

Nail your remount As mentioned above often paddlers rush their remount, once your butt is in the bucket you have done the hard work.  Take your time getting organized, as you don’t want to end up back in the water.

So why did the leash fail? Look at the photos I uploaded.  The Think leash anchor is like a T and it sits in a recess of the cockpit.  Seth had attached the leash by wrapping the line around one of the top arms of the T instead of wrapping around the base.  When the ski went for a flyer the pressure torqued the T off centre and the rope slid off.

Towing a swimmer in the water is futile.  Doing a back deck rescue is much more effective, but is more challenging for the paddler.  It is definitely something we should all practice in “conditions”.   You don’t want to end up with two swimmers.  The behavior of the rescue-ee can affect the outcome too.  They should stay low as possible and with legs and arms acting as stabilizers.  Easier said than done in rough conditions.

As with most rescue techniques, it never becomes part of your repertoire unless you practice.  Its one thing to do a remount on flat-water but can you do it in 3 foot waves where you will really be challenged?  Do you know how to wrestle a run-away ski into submission? It’s not that hard but until you have practiced you will be less likely to be successful in an emergency situation.

Check out these videos Deep Cove Kayak produced with Alex Matthews:  Most people want to learn how to remount properly which is covered in the first video. The second video has some good examples of techniques you may require to assist somebody in the water.  You may have your own variations, and some of the techniques may vary in effectiveness depending on wave size, wind speed and how good you are at performing the rescue.  Build your tool box of rescue resources.

How to Remount a Surf Ski – with Alex Matthews from Alex Matthews on Vimeo.

Assisted Surf Ski Rescues – with Alex Matthews & Bob Putnam from Alex Matthews on Vimeo.

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