It is my lofty goal to keep these journal entries short and fun, interesting to non-boaters, and helpful to kayakers. However, this first day was unexpectedly memorable and traumatic, and I think I should take the time to document it fully here.
My First Day Kayaking - A Near Drowning on the Neuse River
One very hot, sunny, and humid afternoon, after signing up for a "One Day Intro to River Kayaking" class with the City of Raleigh's Parks and Recreation Department, I find myself sitting in a city owned kayak in the calm, muddy water of the Neuse River.
We are first shown a wet exit by our instructor. Then the other two students (father and son) and myself each try a couple. A wet exit is simply a process that involves removing yourself from the boat while upside down. This is done by breaking the seal of the skirt that closes you into the boat and then scooting yourself out of the fairly tight fitting cockpit.
Apparently, in difficult circumstances, even experienced kayakers must swim on occasion.
Since roll instruction is not part of this introduction, executing a wet exit would presumably be our only option if our kayaks flip. Though that presumption would be proven wrong later in the day when I choose a different solution for unintentionally capsizing.
After the wet exit practice, our group of four move downstream discussing current and crossing some eddy lines, as well as practicing a few ferries across very mild currents.
With the exception of one moment when the son got a little overzealous with his paddling and flipped in calm water, nothing too dramatic occurred during the first half of our day. The son performed his wet exit admirably and after a small delay draining his boat on shore, we were back on our way downstream.
North Carolina takes the brunt of hurricanes on a regular basis. Even though we were pretty far inland, there was storm damage evident beside the river from the most recent hurricane. Trees and limbs not yet swept away by the river were strewn along the banks and represented hazards called strainers. A strainer’s ability to allow water to pass through but catch other things, including kayaks, makes them a problem.
On a wide, barely moving river such as the Neuse, strainers are of little concern, but towards the end of our run the river narrowed and picked up a small amount of speed. It was still Class I and not much to worry about.
However, there was a massive tree stump sitting out in the river about 4 feet from the right bank. The trunk of the tree was lying down across the water creating a 4 foot bridge to the right bank with only a 12 inch underpass.
Going left around the stump was the only option.
The problem was that the slow moving current still forced you to go close to the stump, because of very shallow water on the far left.
The instructor decided to stay upstream and let each of us go by this seemingly trivial obstacle.
The son went first without incident.
I went second but ended up against the stump. My boat got turned around and even though I was consciously trying to lean against the stump (which is the proper technique to avoid flipping in that situation), apparently I was not leaning up against it enough. I was flipped pretty quickly.
I am extremely comfortable in water so I wasn't too disturbed by the circumstance of the moment. The water was barely moving and I could touch the bottom. Though I should have been thinking about a wet exit, I did not. I simply pushed off the bottom and flipped the boat right side up while still holding the paddle.
Later I found out the instructor was a little shocked and perceived me to have executed a kayak roll with no training. It was not a roll, or at least it was not a proper roll. I was still happy I didn't have to swim out of the boat and then be burdened with having to get myself and the boat to the river bank to drain it.
Somehow I think pushing off the bottom will not be something I can count on as a regular technique for righting a kayak in the future.
The father came after me. Seeing me getting flipped up against the stump probably didn't help his confidence and somehow he managed to get on the right side of the stump with his bow jammed under the fallen tree trunk. His son and I were now downstream in an eddy on the opposite side of the river.
Shortly after wedging under the tree, the father’s boat flipped and became wedged upside down even tighter under the trunk between the stump and the river bank.
Knowing the river was very shallow after my flip up from the bottom, I was concerned that he may have little room to get out of the firmly held boat.
It then began to get scary because he did not surface readily and was apparently still in the boat under the water. It was overwhelming to witness because I was so far downstream and on the wrong side of the river to provide immediate assistance. The instructor was not choosing to make progress towards him. I assume because of the risk of jamming both boats in the strainer, but I must say my perception was that the instructor didn't really know what to do. I imagine this specific rescue dilemma was not covered in training.
After a disturbing period of time, the boat flushed out from underneath the tree trunk, but the father still did not surface. Soon the boat is nearing me. With my lack of paddling skills I decide that I can do more good out of a kayak than in, so I begin to get out of my boat to swim after him. Then all of a sudden, his head comes up. He must be free of the boat, but the brief scream that comes from his lungs is more terrifying than any scream I have ever heard. Immediately he is back under.
It turns out he was not free of the boat. He just found a shallow spot to push up against momentarily. He is then downstream even further, underwater for another very long period. There is no motion visible under the boat in the water which had become much clearer as we moved downstream. The instructor is starting to close in on him at last, but then finally... he is free in the water. He manages to separate himself from the boat.
He makes it to shore and collapses on dry land. After lying in the dirt a few minutes he is able to sit up but he has to be alone for another 20 minutes before he can talk to us about what happened.
It turns out he simply forgot how to do a wet exit. He could not break the seal from his frantic efforts inside the boat. He specifically needed to pull on the grab loop at the front of the skirt to get it off.
He says that after being upside down for so long, starving for air, when he thought he was going to die, he had a surreal brief moment of calmness. In that moment he thought this is a ridiculous way to die. Still in that strange moment he asked himself what could he possibly do to get free of the boat.
And then he remembered to pull the grab loop.