What Practicing Kayak Rescues with the Coast Guard Taught Me

Lowering rescue swimmer
Coast Guard helicopter lowering a rescue swimmer

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday…These are words I hope never to say, but there I was in Charleston Harbor hailing the United States Coast Guard. I pulled my marine VHF radio from my PFD, or life jacket, and requested medical assistance for a 62-year old male with chest pains and dizziness. Fortunately, this call was only part of a training exercise. The designated victim—my husband—played the role of victim in our rescue scenario. Nevertheless, seeing my husband stretched out on the deck of a 45′ Coast Guard Response Boat Medium reminded me that someday one of us might need to make a similar call.

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Medical care for “Victim” Kevin

Kevin, myself, and five others came to Charleston to participate in a kayak-Coast Guard training exercise. Every April, Scott Brown and Jeff Atkins run the Joint Incident Management Program prior to the East Coast Paddle Sports Festival. Scott is a retired army officer and helicopter pilot who conducted combat search and rescue exercises, and Jeff is a kayak instructor and park ranger in South Carolina. Scott designed this exercise to help the coast guard and paddlers partner in real rescue situations, so the training works both ways. Kayakers learn the correct language to hail the coast guard and guide the rescue boat and helicopter to their location, and the coast guard personnel learn how to locate and assist people in small boats.

Our team of nine gathered in Demetre Park gathered at 7:30 am on a windy morning. Several days before, we ‘met’ on a conference call to go over call signals, safety protocol and the morning’s program. I had been checking wind and waves daily, hoping conditions would be small enough to conduct the exercise but big enough to be somewhat realistic. As soon as we arrived, we prepared our boats and gear to launch in case the weather deteriorated. Everyone carried VHF radios, tow belts, contact tows, and a variety of rescue and safety equipment, including extra clothes and first aid kits. We paddled out to a day mark, a navigational marker, in the area of ‘Middle Ground’ between Castle Pinkney and Fort Sumter, to prepare for exercises with the coast guard boat and helicopter.

Middle Ground
Middle Ground in Charleston Harbor
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Rafting up to create a stable platform
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Holding position in waves

First we practiced ‘rafting up’, that is, holding our boats together. In case of an actual rescue, gathering the boats both makes us visible to rescuers and also provides stability to care for a victim and call for help. In rough conditions, a victim who is ill or has sustained an injury such as a shoulder dislocation will not be able to remain upright and needs the support of at least one other kayak. Another paddler might tow the entire raft to prevent drifting into a hazard. Kayakers frequently use the term ‘raft up’ when we want or group to come together, and I had never considered whether this term is useful to others. One participant associated with the Coast Guard pointed out the term ‘raft’ is meaningless to the Coast guard. Another wondered if they might not look for a large gray raft, not a group of kayaks. Scott warned us to avoid jargon—“Use plain language.” Lesson learned.

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Working with big and little boats in waves
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Lee stabilizing a boat

At 10 am, on military time, we began our exercises with the Coast Guard boat and helicopter. I made the first Mayday call, requesting help for Kevin’s “heart attack”. I noted our location, the number of  people in our group, and our problem. And the Coast Guard always asks if everyone is wearing a PFD. After approximately ten minutes, the rescue boat arrived—this might be much longer in a real situation. Lee and Ted stabilized Kevin’s boat and brought him parallel to the rescue boat so that he could be lifted on board. Doing so gave the crew practice working with 16’ kayaks in rough seas and helped us understand how to help the coast guard help us.

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Awaiting the helicopter

Next, the part we had all been waiting for— the helicopter ops. Imagine being injured and floating out to sea on an out-going tide. A helicopter flies overhead, but can they see you? From a distance, the bright white, yellow, and orange colors of our kayaks are specks in a vast ocean. A helicopter or boat might see the smoke from our flares, assuming we carried them, and most of us carry PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons). Search and rescue helicopters fly multiple search patterns looking for survivors, but we can increase our odds by guiding the aircraft using our VHF radios. Each of us practiced directing the USCG HH-65 Dolphin —‘right turn, stop turn, we’re on your nose,’ learning the language to best communicate with the crew. Then an Aviation Survival Technician “rescue swimmer,” with fins, snorkel, and helmet, jumped from the helicopter and swam to our boats, sharing tips on how to be spotted from the air. The helicopter crew raised and lowered him on the hoist, replicating what might happen in an actual rescue. If Kevin’s heart attack were real, the crew would have placed him in a rescue basket, raised him up, and immediately began medical treatment, probably saving his life.

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Search and rescue practice
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Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer
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Learning from the rescue swimmer

When life, limb or vessel are at risk, that calls for a Mayday. This is nothing to take casually. Asking for help puts other lives at risk, the rescuers and other victims, for example. However, in an emergency such as a heart attack far from shore or a serious injury, calling for help saves lives. While debriefing after the exercises, we debated about what situations call for a Mayday. In our second practice round with the coast guard 45’ Response Boat Medium, I played the victim, a 57-year old woman with a dislocated shoulder. Was a Mayday call necessary, we asked? As usual, it depends. If we had been surfing 50 yards off Folly Beach, then no because my friends could help me ashore and call 911. I would get medical care within the ‘Golden Hour.’ On the other hand, if we were a mile off-shore in an out-going tide, my inability to paddle would place the entire group in danger if we drifted into bigger conditions. In that case, calling the coast guard would reduce risk for the entire group and perhaps prevent a multi-victim rescue.

Ultimately mitigating risk is the best way we can help the coast guard and ourselves. Reducing risk begins the moment we plan the activity and does not end until everyone is home safe. This means asking questions, even ones that might seem intrusive. Is all equipment functional, and are all members of the group healthy and prepared for existing conditions? For kayakers in the coastal Southeast, understanding tides, sandbars, and currents is critical. In a incident or capsize, will we drift towards safety or out to sea? Scott adapted a set of questions from Eric Soares’ Sea Conditions Rating System. These systems quantify risk, making assessment less subjective and easier to communicate. Answering these questions helps avoid complacency, especially if we know an area well.

Scotts Adaptation of Soares System
Soares Sea Condition Rating system
Eric Soares Sea Conditions Rating System
Scott Brown’s adaptation for SE coastal conditions

Practicing with the Coast Guard was fun and instructive—everyone loves helicopters, but someday the call might be real. I’ve rehearsed Mayday calls several times, learning radio protocol in low stakes situations. I hope these drills will steady my hand and voice if one of my friends is injured or ill, when we desperately need help. My friends and I carry rescue and safety gear on our PFDs and in our boats, and we practice rescues in a range of conditions. We train for the worst and hope for the best. On any given day, you just never know what might happen, and we want to be prepared. Thanks and a big shout-out to the crews of USCG HH-65 6526 from Air Station Savannah and Response Boat Medium 45709 from Station Charleston.

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Boats and gear ready to go

Paddling and Plunder in Matanzas Inlet

Heading out

Every February Dale Williams of Sea Kayaking USA gathers his band of paddlers for a week of rough water training in Matanzas Inlet. Shaped like a ‘C’, the Matanzas River flows from St. Augustine Inlet southward to Matanzas Inlet so tidal flows and currents affect both north and south inlets. St. Augustine was the first permanent European settlement in what would later become the United States, and this historically-rich region reveals much about our past, missions, battles, pirates and plunder. But who can focus on history in the surf? As I bounce around in the chop, surf, and shoot through standing waves, enjoying the coastal chaos that river mouths offer, my world shrinks to body, boat, and blade.

Matanzas Inlet
Matanzas Inlet in north Florida (Courtesy of Google Maps)

We’re paddling sea kayaks, many of us in 16′ NDK Pilgrims and Romanys, designed by Nigel Dennis from Anglesey Island in Wales. Nigel designed these boats to handle the lumpy waters, or ‘jobbledy bits’, off the coastal UK. We’ve discovered that these kayaks make terrific surf boats, and we have plenty of surf in the southeast.

With the right conditions—swell, wind, and current, Matanzas Inlet offers near perfect waves for surfing our 16′ kayaks. Long boat surfing occupies a tiny niche in the kayak world, but the few of us who surf are addicted. Dale chose Matanzas Inlet because its shifting sandbars provide both excellent surf and a range of conditions to accommodate different skills levels. Not surprisingly, these conditions result in numerous opportunities for self- and assisted rescues.

Matanzas Inlet
(Courtesy of http://www.skypic.com)

 

We gather from many points in the US. The Texans, Louisianians, and Floridians among us don drysuits against Florida’s February chill, while some of the braver folks from Michigan and New England wear shorts. For them, Florida’s February might as well be summer.

On the beach

Some of us are training for the American Canoe Association’s (ACA) Advanced Coastal Kayaking Instructor Award, which requires a combinations of factors including 3-5 foot seas, 15-25 knots wind, 3-4 surf break, and 5 knots current. This means not only surviving these conditions but teaching, playing and rescuing in them. Each morning and evening, we meet on the porch of our shared house for Dale’s “academics”, where we discuss surf and rescue techniques and topics such as navigation and marine weather. By the time we reach our launch site, the day has warmed to a temperature even I can tolerate.]

Matanzas Launch
Preparing to launch
Massacre of the French Marker, Matanzas Inlet
Photo credit: George Lansing Taylor, Jr. UNF (https://digitalcommons.unf.edu/historical_architecture_main/3343/) Sponsors: in cooperation with St. Johns County Historical Commission

An historical marker describing the 1565 ‘Massacre of the French’ marks our path through the dunes. We refer to ‘Matanzas’ so casually—”Are you coming to Matanzas this year?” Even though Fort Matanzas National Monument sits just upstream, it’s difficult to imagine that this tranquil inlet hosted such bloodshed and cruelty. The Spanish massacred over 300 stranded French mariners in this place. I’d reflected on this before, the incongruity that places of great beauty and tranquility mask bloody histories. Just north, for example, Fort George Inlet near Jacksonville was the southernmost point of the Low country slave trade.

Our schools teach a myth of origin that revolves around New England, pilgrims, and religious rebellion, but Spanish rule of Florida began in 1513, prior to any British settlements. The First Coast endured waves of French, Spanish, and British newcomers who eradicated indigenous populations, and, often, each other. In 1742, the Spanish built Fort Matanzas to guard against British incursions, and they ruled Florida until 1763. The British gained control from 1763-1783, ceded Florida back to the Spanish in 1783, and regained the territory in 1821.

The sandbars that guard the entrance to the river mouth shaped Florida history. The shallow waters of Matanzas Inlet protected Fort Matanzas and St. Augustine from British invaders, but they also led to plunder and piracy. Pirates chased ships aground onto sandbars along the Florida Coast and plundered the cargo. Wreckers, as described in Tim Robinson’s Tales from Old Florida later replaced pirates and salvaged materials from ruined boats, establishing settlements in the process. River mouths were treacherous to anything other than small, nimble boats.

Map of Matanzas 1742
Map of Matanzas 1742 (Courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology)

This 1742 map shows how the Matanzas Inlet shoreline has changed, which is what happens with sandy coasts. Unlike the rocky coasts of the northeast and Britain, our river mouth hydrology changes with every hurricane and every major storm. NOAA charts illustrate permanent land masses and static navigational features, but sandbars come and go, so that we re-learn our coasts after every storm.

Matanzas WavesMatanzas NDKs

And this is why we train here. To learn how to navigate through the changing hydrology of sandbars and river mouths. Some paddlers were exploring these features for the first time, learning to brace and roll in the waves. Others, like myself, were learning to lead other paddlers, to bring groups safely through a surf zone with breaking waves up to four feet. This means not only leading groups out through waves, but bringing them back through the waves. Like climbing, it’s easier to go up or out than down or in.

The strong tidal currents of the Matanzas River, combined with strong winds, made rescues and group cohesion difficult. An out-going tide could sweep boat, victim, and rescuers out to sea. We had some unusual challenges, one afternoon, a bank of fog descended on us, rare for Florida. This is why we practice in this venue, to be prepared when the rescues, capsizes, and out-of-boats experience are real.

Surfing at Jax 3
Surfing at Jax Beach Photo credit: Joe Crespi

On our first morning, the conditions were big, maybe too big, but the waves were clean. Dale gave us free time to play and surf as a warm up for our subsequent training. At one point, I realized that we had company—two dolphins were also playing and surfing in the waves. As they leapt over the waves, they exposed their full bodies—nose to tail, something I rarely see. It’s a gift and a privilege to play with dolphins. So, forgetting the pressures of training and the ravages of history, I surfed under the bright February sun.

Paddling