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Lessons LearnedOn the Beach

Nemesis Never Sleeps

By Tamia Nelson

July 5, 2011

When dawn breaks bright and warm, and when you can do whatever you want with the day, many of us head for the water. That's what In the Same Boat reader and frequent correspondent Pat McKay decided to do on one morning in late spring. He set out with his buddy Roger for the Nanticoke River, not far from the place where it empties into Chesapeake Bay. Both Pat and Roger are experienced paddlers. They know the ropes, they know the water, and they know how to stay out of trouble. But that's not always enough, because …

Nemesis Never Sleeps

They launched their Wilderness Systems Cape Horn kayaks at Cedar Hill Park, Maryland, with the intention of exploring the salt marshes. But things didn't go exactly to plan. Here's how Pat tells the tale:

It was a beautiful day to paddle the Nanticoke River. A tad breezy, but who minds a few whitecaps, right? We saw nesting ospreys as well as several adult bald eagles, including one that had just caught a nice‑sized fish. Oh, and I managed to get in an unscheduled wet exit from my kayak. I was a tad slow on the brace. I might also want to do something about the leaking stern hatch cover. Today, however, I'm shopping for new eyeglasses. And I can't say enough good things about the Seattle Sports Super Deluxe bilge pump.

Short and sweet. And not without a refreshing dash of dry wit — always a good thing when you have to make a wet exit. But Pat's letter raised more questions than it answered, so I asked him to give me the whole story. And he did:

What happened? Well, I'm still trying to put the pieces together, but I think I might have a pretty good idea. It was a breezy day, though when we launched the kayaks the winds were quite light and the seas were calm. Later on in the afternoon, however, it was different story.

Heading back to Cedar Hill Park to take out, we had a trailing sea with waves coming from the quarter and breaking over the rear deck of the boats. Both kayaks were surprisingly skittish, particularly when surfing down the sides of the waves. One particular wave that I encountered was significantly higher than the others, and as it broke over the freeboard and into the cockpit (I was just using a splash deck and not a full spray skirt) the cockpit was suddenly filled with water. Over she went.

It was no big deal, because the water was quite warm and we were both relatively close to shore where we had been trying to find shelter from the wind. The only real downside to the dunking was that I lost my eyeglasses. My eyeglasses retainer was still hanging over the rearview mirror of my truck where I left it so I would be sure to wear it.

Anyway, when I was loading the kayaks back on the rack, I thought that they felt a little heavy, but I chalked it up to early season lack of conditioning. When I arrived at home and began cleaning the kayaks, however, I discovered that both craft had taken on quite a bit of water in the stern's so‑called "watertight" compartment. The stern compartment of the kayak that I was using was literally filled to the hatch cover. The one that Roger had paddled was about half full. It's possible that my kayak took on water in the stern compartment when it flipped, [but] I'm thinking that the leaking hatch cover might have had something to do with the skittishness that we both experienced. Roger stayed upright in his boat, and his had shipped the smaller amount of water.

My camera gear survived. All pictures were taken either while we were paddling in the lee of the land, or when ashore at the point. Once the water began to get lively, the camera was relegated to the dry bag.

I clearly made a number of dumb mistakes. Probably the biggest error was in not packing the two spray skirts and taking them along with us in the kayaks. That, and extending the outing for an additional 30 minutes or so to watch bald eagles when it was evident that the weather had begun to change significantly from that morning's forecast. My friend Roger — an ex‑Coast Guardsman with countless hours on the water — said as we were driving home, "You know, Pat, there's a lesson in this." To which I replied, "Lesson learned."

Which sums things up nicely, I think. Nemesis dealt relatively gently with Pat and Roger that day on the Nanticoke River. Pat got wet when he'd expected to stay dry, and he lost his eyeglasses, but that was that. On the "any landing you can walk away from is a good one" scale, the trip was a success. Still, as Roger remarked at the end, there were indeed lessons to be learned from the experience. Happily, Pat's been good enough to let me highlight a few of them here. And since I like to get the bad news over early, let's begin by looking at …

The Things That Caught Nemesis' Eye

Before that, though, I'll set the scene. Here are Pat's and Roger's boats, pulled out on a sandy Nanticoke beach:

Two on the Beach

And here's an overview of the scene (Cedar Hill Park isn't shown on the map, but the red circle marks its approximate location):

A River Runs Through It

By the way, this map is reproduced from the Salisbury Maryland–Delaware–Virginia 1:100 000‑scale metric topographic map. (It's available as a free PDF from the USGS Store, an invaluable resource for paddlers and other backcountry travelers.) Pat and Roger set off from Cedar Hill Park. As you can see from a cursory inspection of the map, the river opens up as it approaches Fishing Bay on the Chesapeake, and the lowlands around the mouth offer scant protection from the wind, especially if it's blowing from the south or west. Not surprisingly, then, the Old Woman played a part in the day's misadventures.

Now let's take a closer look at the mistakes the two buddies made:

They Left Their Spray Skirts Behind  Kayaks are the quintessential open‑water paddlecraft. After all, they evolved to meet the needs of sea‑hunters in frigid Arctic waters, where sudden storms are commonplace and an unplanned swim can easily end in death. But a spray skirt is an essential part of the package. Without it, a kayak is just an open boat — and an open boat with very low freeboard, at that. So why would anyone leave his spray skirt behind? Well, for one thing, they're something of nuisance. And it can get mighty warm below decks in a buttoned‑up kayak on a hot day. Which is why paddlers who stay in sheltered waters often opt for "sun skirts," instead. These abbreviated spray skirts — they're also known as "splash decks" or "splash skirts" — keep the sun off your legs, but they don't make a watertight seal. This allows cooling air to circulate around an overheated paddler. But it also lets water flood into the boat any time the cockpit coaming dips below the surface. As Pat discovered.

The take‑home message? Spray skirts aren't the coolest things going, but they're essential gear for open‑water paddlers, and that goes for a lot of folks who just think they're going out for an easy day in the sun.

They Stayed Too Long at the Party  It's hard to leave when you're having fun, but sometimes you have to. After all, bad weather can dampen spirits in a hurry. When the wind rises and storm clouds build, it's time to call it a day, notwithstanding the alluring antics of the bald eagles. This is doubly true if you've left critical items of gear — like spray skirts, say! — back on shore.

Pat Didn't Tie His Glasses in Place  If you need your glasses to make sense of the world around you, you have to keep them on your head under all conditions. (The glasses also need to be made from a material that takes hard knocks in stride, something Farwell learned when he went over the bars of his bike at 20 mph and slid along the asphalt on his face. The polycarbonate lenses in his glasses survived. They bore deep gouges, but his remaining good eye was uninjured.) Years ago, eyeglass wearers had to tie their specs in place with string, or improvise safety straps from rubber bands and old inner tubes. Nowadays, you can buy eyeglass retainers off the shelf. But you still have to remember to use them.

Pat's Brace Let Him Down  This has probably happened to every paddler at one time or another. It's mostly an avoidable mishap, however, and if (when!) it happens to you, you'll work hard to avoid a recurrence. Here's why: The brace, in all its varied forms (high, low, sculling, etc.), is arguably the most important weapon in the paddler's arsenal. If you plan on going in harm's way, your brace has to be strong and certain. It must also be automatic. Rogue waves don't give you time to think. Which makes it even more important that you put your brace to the test early in every trip, before you venture out into the rough stuff. Pat's brace had a bad day. But I'll bet it won't have another for a very, very long time.

The Kayaks' Hatch Covers Proved Less Than Watertight  Hatch covers are to kayakers what through‑hulls are to sailors — potential leak points. Water is heavy. Each gallon that makes its way past a seal adds more than eight pounds to your load. It also sloshes about, exaggerating your boat's response to every pitch, yaw, or roll, a phenomenon known as the "free surface effect." Which is exactly what you don't need in a turbulent seaway. A bilge pump is your best friend when your kayak starts taking on water, but prevention is infinitely better than cure. Check the seals on your hatch cover(s) before and after every trip — and never ignore evidence that they're not doing their job. Maybe it's only a few cups of water this time. But the next time… Who knows? A seal is either watertight or it isn't. There's no place for half‑measures here.


OK. So much for the things that Pat and Roger did (or didn't do) that brought them to Nemesis' attention. But their story didn't turn out too badly, did it? Nope. And why not? Because they did a lot of things right. So let's see …

What Averted Nemesis' Wrath

Put simply, both boaters were old salts, and one — a former Coast Guardsman — had a wealth of professional experience to draw on. Old salts can make mistakes, of course. Pat's story is proof of that. But experience prevents little problems from becoming big ones. That's what happened here. For example:

Pat Wasn't Alone  Most troubles are easier to bear if they're shared, and trouble on the water is no exception. A skilled companion is invaluable when things go wrong. Solo boaters have just one opportunity to get it right. Folks who paddle in company often get second chances.

They Had Seaworthy Boats  After a good buddy, a good boat is your best friend on the water. And the Cape Horn is a good boat.

Pat Had a Bilge Pump  Would it have been better if he'd also worn his spray skirt? Of course. But thanks to his bilge pump, this single oversight was a footnote in his paddling history and not a chapter ending.

He Also Had a Dry Bag  Few items of gear are improved by a dunking, but cameras and electronics are especially vulnerable. Pat knows this. (He's an active and accomplished photographer, whose contributions have done a lot to make my own website look better.) So he took precautions. The result? He got wet, but his gear stayed dry.

Both Boaters Learned From Their Mistakes  Whether novice or expert, we all slip up from time to time. In fact, making mistakes is an essential part of the learning process. But it only works if you use the opportunity. Pat and Roger did. For instance, Pat's now following up the problem with the leaky hatches. It's just this sort of attention to detail that makes expert boaters expert.

All boaters have bad days. Everyone blunders, and sometimes we pay the price for our mistakes. But if even the most experienced paddlers get it wrong now and then, just what separates the expert and soon‑to‑be expert from the eternal novice? That's easy: It's the determination to learn from his (or her) mistakes. As Pat's recent misadventure on the Nanticoke River demonstrated. After all, Nemesis never sleeps. So it's up to us to stay awake.



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