OK, so by now, much of the PNW kayaking community has probably heard the news that “something” happened this past weekend at the Lumpy Waters Symposium. What follows is my incident report for what happened Friday, October 14th at the mouth of Netarts Bay.

First off, this is by no means a comprehensive incident report. There were four instructors, twelve students, and countless first responders from multiple agencies, and each one of those people will have their own perspective on this incident. This is simply the clearest picture I can put together, based on what I remember about that day. I’m aware that my memories are not going to be perfect. Far from it, in fact. My perceptions of what was going on at any moment were filtered by adrenaline and whatever kinds of psychological phenomena are common to an event like this. Time, for example, got bent all out of shape. If you had asked me when I landed how long I had been out there, I would have said maybe a half an hour or forty minutes, when, in reality, it was nearly two hours from the time things started going bad to the time I landed on the beach again.

Please feel free to comment, especially if you were there. All comments on this blog are moderated by me, so if I get one of those “what a bunch of idiots” type of comments, it will never see the light of day, so don’t bother. But if you have anything useful or illuminating to add, please feel free to do so. If you have any photos of this event that you’re willing to share here, email me and I’ll add them to this entry.


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I arrived at Lumpy Waters HQ at noon on Friday, just in time to slap together a sandwich and make it to the coaches’ meeting, where we got the basic layout for the weekend, and were shown a variety of available venues on Google Earth on the overhead projector. As soon as the meeting was over, Sean, the other lead instructor for the class that I was to be teaching that afternoon, introduced himself, and said that we were going to take our Long Boat Surfing class to the mouth of Netarts Bay, a venue I had never been to before.

I had never met Sean before, but Sean and one of the other assistants, Jamie, are well known names in the world of kayak surfing, and I have only been teaching beginners to surf kayaks for a couple of years. Even so, I asked why we would drive so far when there was a nice surf beach right out in front of the resort where the event was based. He told me that he and the other coaches had already checked it out, and that beach was “dumpy” right then, meaning the waves were not particularly well suited to surfing, and especially not conducive to long rides, which Sean was hoping to be able to offer the students in our class. Since it was brought up in the coaches’ meeting that the tide was going to be ebbing that afternoon, I was concerned, since river mouths are known to be unfriendly places to be on an ebb tide, but I assumed that these guys must have known something about this particular situation and venue that I didn’t and so I didn’t challenge the choice of venue any further. This was a huge mistake on my part. I should have realized that I didn’t need to be an expert kayak surfer to know that the mouth of a river or bay is a dangerous place to be on an ebb.

Even though I didn’t speak up out loud, in my head I was already getting concerned, and I went and picked up the laminated charts and satellite photos of the venue that Alder Creek provided for the coaches, and brought them along to look at. What I saw wasn’t making me feel any better.



We met up with our students, and got everyone oriented to the plan, and started getting kayaks and people sorted out and loaded on trailers and roof racks. There were two students in their own van who already had their kayaks loaded up, and were going to wait out by the highway for us. What I didn’t realize until later is that they then asked if they could go on ahead and meet us at Netarts, and they were told that would be OK. After a bit, we had a trailer loaded up with kayaks, but people were scattered about in personal cars, and it was very hard to get an accurate sense of whether or not everyone who needed a ride for themselves or their kayaks had one. Eventually, I had to just assume that people would take care of themselves in that way, and we hit the road, but now I was starting to feel kind of edgy. I guess I’m just more of a control freak than that, and I was not comfortable with the feeling that we were only very loosely organized, and kind of rushing off towards a venue that I had never seen before and wasn’t even sure how to get to.

That said, I was trying to keep an open mind about it. I know that there are many different ways of teaching and organizing and leading groups, and since I had not worked with this particular group of coaches before, I wanted to stay as open to learning new things as I could, and tried to keep my edgy, inner control freak in check. After all, out of the four of us, I was pretty sure I was the least experienced in big surf conditions.

We arrived at the beach at Happy Camp, near the town of Netarts somewhat before 2 PM. I had to deal with some gear that I had not had time to put on before we left, and get the trailer and van parked, and I wanted to spend a few minutes watching the surf on the spit across the water from where we were parked. I would have rather spent a lot longer doing that, but it seemed like people were eager to get going, since it was the afternoon, and the first session of the weekend. I’m used to getting out of the vehicles as a group, observing conditions for a while, and then making a decision about the venue before even unloading the trailer, but the two guys who had left ahead of us were already unloaded and geared up and ready to go when we arrived, and that added to the feeling that I needed to hurry up and get this class started. I did look at the tide book, though, since nobody seemed sure exactly when high tide would be. To my dismay, I realized that we would be starting our class just after the tide had turned and was starting to ebb.

By the time I got down to the beach, the groups had already been split into two, and I met up with my group of five students, and Richard, my assistant, who, as it turned out, was the only one of the four coaches who had been to that venue before. I did the usual introductions, checking on prior experience and medical issues with the students, but didn’t get to do the whole pre-trip protocol that I am used to doing.

I reiterated the risks of the ebb tide, and laid out the plan for our group. We would stay in close to the bay, at the north end of the spit, surfing into the bay right up by the spit, and using the deeper green water to return back to a starting position to surf again, always being aware of position and what the ebb was doing to us. The plan for any wet exits and swimmers was to wash up on the spit, sort one’s self out and start out again, as is usually the plan at more “normal” surf venues where I have taught classes before. I did state that it was likely that we would be ending the class session somewhere near the peak of the ebb current, and it would be very important to be mindful of that. October 14th was shortly after the full moon, so the tides would be especially strong.

With that, we got on the water, and as I got in my kayak, I had a very clear, bad feeling about this place, and reminded myself that I would have to be VERY careful to keep everyone as tight to the end of the spit as possible, and to keep very close tabs on the group. We got on the water right around 2:15 PM.



As soon as we crossed the deep channel and arrived on the “surfy” side, I realized that I had my work cut out for me. Richard and a couple of the students caught a couple of rides, and I positioned myself about in the middle of the area we were going to surf, but just to the north, along the edge of the deep water, where I hoped I could keep an eye on things and catch anyone who was getting drifted out towards the sea, and the much larger surf break on the outside.

It was obvious right away that this was going to be a very hard job to do. I was doing head counts repeatedly, and often having a hard time seeing many of the students as they were hidden on the fronts of waves that I was looking at the backs of. The conditions were a little bigger, even where we were towards the inside, than many of the students were able to manage well. It was around this time, maybe near 2:30 or so, that Sean’s group got on the water, and headed towards the bigger waves outside of us, to the west of our position.

One of my students went upstream, into the bay, around this time, and I saw Richard go after her to see what was up. Another student had a minor capsize nearby, his second already, and I went to rescue him. I had just gotten him sorted out when Richard came by and said that the upstream student, Setsuko, had gone over there to pump some water out of her cockpit that had sloshed in when she launched. She was fine. I turned around to see that two of my students, Dave and Steve, had moved pretty far to the west while I was doing the rescue. One seemed to be headed that way intentionally, so Richard said that he would go out and bring them back inside. He headed out that way, and I was trying to do a head count of my group. I realized that we were all drifting to the west much faster than I had expected, and I turned around to see if I could see Richard, Dave and Steve behind me, when I saw a much larger set of waves come through and capsize multiple students from both classes all at once.

I’m not sure how many people ended up in the water at that time, but I remember thinking that it looked like a lot of loose boats and swimmers, and I could no longer see many of the students from either group, including Steve and Dave, or Richard. I started heading out to see if I could pick up any swimmers and bring them back to the east, and hopefully land them on the spit. I saw Shay and Donna’s boats go surfing past me, empty. Donna’s boat was closer to me, so I headed in that direction, hoping to find her. She still had her paddle and was waving it in the air, and I found her pretty quickly.

Donna was actively swimming with her paddle towards shore, and I picked her up and started towing her, with her hanging onto my end toggle. This was the beginning of a long, hard pile of work for me that wouldn’t end for nearly two hours.

Donna and I were working our way east, trying to get back to the smaller surf, and the north end of the spit, but by now we were well outside of where we had intended to stay, and the waves were bigger out there. I did what I could to back off of the waves and not surf them, but every now and then I would get caught on one and surf down it at high speed, either right side up, or often upside down after getting broached. Donna would let go and I would eventually get to the end of the ride, roll up if I was upside down, and go back to find her and start it over again. These upside down sessions were frequent, and I often had to stay under for much longer than I am used to, and it was hard to stay put and not panic. But I always managed to stay in and roll back up. One particularly big wave surprised me and as I surfed away the end toggle on my stern broke away and stayed in Donna’s hand. Now I had no good way for her to hang on and be towed, so I asked her if she was comfortable climbing on the back deck of my kayak, but she didn’t seem too keen on that, and given how often I was already getting knocked down, I didn’t force the issue, and we kept plodding on, with her now just holding onto my rear perimeter lines.

Somewhere around this time, I thought that a mayday call to the Coast Guard was in order. I had no idea how many, if any, students had made it to dry land, but I knew that those of us who were still out here were probably going to need outside assistance. I pulled out my radio a couple of times, but immediately had to drop it again to paddle or brace, and after a couple of tries I gave it up and put it away again. I knew that if I did make contact with the Coast Guard, they would want to keep talking to me, and I knew that was not going to work in the situation I was in.

By now, I could see Jamie off to the north a little ways, carrying Shay on his back deck, and also getting thrashed and surfed and frequently capsized. He was trying to make it back to the beach on the north side of the river, paddling a steep ferry angle to the ENE, a path that hopefully would get us out of the surf zone and into deeper water. I tried that for a while, too, but we were near a crab buoy that showed us the unhappy fact that for a long time, we were making no headway at all. So I decided to go back to trying to paddle to the end of the spit, a path that took us back into heavy breakers, where Donna and I took more heavy beatings from the sea, and I repeatedly spent untold long seconds upside down wishing desperately for air to breathe. But, I could see that we were slowly pulling away from the crab buoy at last and actually starting to make some forward progress towards dry land, so I kept at it. Sometime in this time frame, I heard sirens over by Netarts and eventually saw flashing lights approaching the beach.

Somewhere around this time, Sean appeared from somewhere to the southwest, towing Shay’s empty kayak. We were pretty far from Shay and Jamie now and he offered Donna the empty kayak. She was only too happy to accept. I warned her that Shay’s kayak was an LV model, meaning lower volume and smaller cockpit opening, but she said something to the effect of “I don’t care, at least it’s a kayak!”. I carefully brought her alongside, and left her in Sean’s care, while he helped her into the kayak, and I went back in the direction of where I had last seen Jamie and Shay, hoping to help them.

I found them pretty close to where I had left them, but a little further west, and in some much, much larger breakers than before. I was trying to figure out how to help, and if it would even be possible to tow them, when a very large wave broke on them, capsizing Jamie and burying Shay in a mountain of water. Jamie came up pretty far down the wave, and so I went to Shay to pick her up and try to keep her moving towards the beach. She was exhausted and sounded scared, so I tried to sound calm myself, although I doubt that I did a very good job of it. Because by now, I was pretty scared too. I had never been in this kind of large, heavy and unfriendly surf for so long before, and had never had to rescue anyone out of conditions like that, and I was not really sure what to do now except for “keep trying”, so that’s what I did.

Shay couldn’t climb on my back deck anymore. She said her legs were cramped, and that her drysuit had leaked somewhere and had water inside of it. She has a lean build, and I knew that if her suit had leaked, she was not likely to be able to weather that kind of cold and wet very well, for very long. So I paddled and towed her, and pretty soon Jamie was back and clipped a tow line onto my kayak and we started to make a little better progress. But we were still getting thrashed pretty regularly, and Shay came loose several times. Then I saw Jamie get surfed away, felt a lurch and then there was no more tow line attached. He had clipped into my front toggle, and not the perimeter lines, and now my front toggle was gone as well.

I kept on paddling, and soon Jamie was back, and was getting into position to clip on again, when large wave picked me up pretty high, and the last thing I saw before I was broached and capsized, was the bow of my boat pointing down the wave, right at Jamie’s back. I didn’t have time to yell before I was upside down, and felt myself sliding down the wave, and then I felt my boat stop for a second, before going on. This was one of the most horrible moments of the day for me. I knew that I had hit Jamie, or his kayak, and I was hoping that I had not badly injured him, or worse. This also was one of my longest rides upside down, and I had to fight the urge to panic and come out really, really hard. Eventually I was able to brace up enough to grab a mouthful of salty, foamy air, which let me hang on until I could roll all the way up. I saw Jamie upright and felt a wave of relief, although I could tell that he was hurting. I knew I must have hit his body somewhere.

This time, he was closer to Shay, and he picked her up and continued paddling, and I stayed close, but not too close, as a backup. I was getting really tired by this point, and my throat was burning from the salt water that I had been swallowing and breathing in. By now, I had been capsized by large surf waves at least a dozen or more times, and had had to force myself to stay in, ride it out and roll, and not become another swimmer without a kayak. I knew that if I could stay in my kayak, I would be able to take care of myself, and still possibly be able to help other people, but if I flinched and came out, I would be useless, and in big trouble myself. So I just kept staying in.

It was around this time that I had the second awful moment of the day. Off to the south a little ways, I saw Sean’s green kayak floating upside down. This meant that Sean was also now a swimmer, and possibly Donna, too, who he was with when I had last seen him. I didn’t see them anywhere. But, awful feelings aside, I saw his kayak as something I could maybe use to help Shay and Jamie, so I flipped it upright, clipped into and towed it back towards them. I was really hoping we could put Shay in this boat, hand her my spare paddle, which was miraculously still on my front deck, and we could all get the hell out of there. I don’t know what I was thinking, honestly. I got back to them and realized right away that Shay was in no condition to even sit upright in a kayak anymore, let alone paddle one in these waves.

As I was sitting there for a moment, trying to decide how to be the most useful I could be, a large wave came up under me and I instinctively backed off of it, but of course the empty, now-capsized kayak that I was clipped into couldn’t do that, and it was instantly caught and surfed by this large wave, which instantly capsized me, since the line was wrapped under my kayak and now I was upside down and being dragged sideways underwater. This, of course, is EXACTLY why you’re not supposed to tow a kayak in the surf. I knew this, intellectually. Now I know it for real. Fortunately, I’ve actually practiced releasing a tow while upside down, and I popped my tow belt loose and rolled back up. Jamie, Shay and the green kayak were all nowhere to be seen for a few long moments.

After clearing my head a little, I saw Jamie and Shay back behind me, and I started back to help, or at least be a backup if she fell off again. The green kayak came into view again, too, with my towline attached, but now I was very reluctant to get anywhere near it if it wasn’t going to be an asset somehow. Sometime around now, Sean suddenly appeared again, from the southwest, paddling Shay’s kayak. He asked me how I was doing, and I told him I was tired. He told me to head for the beach and he would go with me. I told him I was fine to make the beach alone, and that he should try to help Jamie and Shay instead. So he headed back towards them, and I headed for the beach, on the north side of the river, to the west of where we launched. As I got clear of the breakers and into deeper water, I could finally see the scene on the beach, and I was very much relieved to see many kayaks there, and many people at the water’s edge in kayaking gear. And sheriff’s vehicles. And flashing lights.

I landed on the beach a hundred yards or more to the west of where everyone was, as the current was really strong by now, and I miscalculated my ferry angle. I got out, stood up and nearly fell back down again. My boat had about four or five inches of water in it by now, and I had a hard time lifting it up to dump it out. People came running at me, and now I had a different set of leadership problems. There were ten students on the beach, but there were differing opinions as to how many people we had in our class, all told. I insisted it was sixteen, and in the end, it turned out I was right, but not for the reasons I thought. Our original roster had twelve students and four instructors, but what I didn’t know is that one of the students was a no-show, and someone else had come along to take pictures. Much confusion ensued while that discrepancy was sorted out. I knew we had a written roster, but I had handed it to Sean before we launched and didn’t know where it had ended up. It turned out he had tucked it under the wiper blades of his truck, which was not a bad place for it to be, but none of us knew that. And, as far as I know, it still had the no-show student listed on it, and not the photographer.

It turned out that everyone but all four coaches, Donna and Shay had arrived safely at the beach, pretty early on. Sean had told Fred the photographer to make the call for outside help, which he did when he landed, with a borrowed cell phone. Donna and Richard had managed to make it to the spit, but Donna had been unable to fit in Shay’s kayak, so she swam the whole way in with Richard’s help and he stayed with her there until it was all over. Dave was standing on top of the sheriff’s truck with binoculars, spotting for the rescuers. He later told me that even from that vantage point, if he didn’t have the binoculars pointed right at us when we crested the waves occasionally, he never would have known for sure where we were.

Soon after I landed, the jetskis from the Netarts Fire and Rescue went zooming past, and in short order they delivered a very wobbly and cold Shay safely to the beach, where she was taken away in an ambulance to warm up. They retrieved Donna from the spit, and managed to recover her kayak, too. But Shay’s kayak was not recovered. From what I heard, it had been holed somewhere along the way, and was swamped when Sean paddled it up to us near the end. He ended up switching back into his green kayak to return to the beach, and let Shay’s kayak go.

We eventually were all together again on the beach, the rescuers wrapped up their affairs and departed, all the remaining kayaks were carried back up to the parking lot and loaded up, and we had a short debriefing session in the parking lot, minus Shay, who was in an ambulance somewhere. We returned to Lumpy Waters HQ just before 7 PM where everyone was merrily drinking beer and people started asking me how my day had gone. Obviously, very few people had heard about it yet.


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I’ve already debriefed this with many of the participants, in a group and individually. The most important thing I have to say is still, “I’m sorry! We NEVER should have taken you there!” And of course, this apology extends as well to the people who trained me as a leader and coach. I was trained better than this. I know better than this. But I ended up second guessing my own knowledge and experience, and automatically deferring to people of a higher skill level than I thought myself to be. I should have challenged this plan, based only on the simple fact that the mouth of a river or bay is a dangerous place to be on a strong ebb tide. I shouldn’t have needed to say anything more than that.

Ironically, when I sat down that evening for a few minutes with Sean, I brought this up to him. He told me that as we were driving north towards Netarts, past McPhillips beach, he was looking down there and thinking, “that looks like a pretty nice spot, maybe we should have gone there instead,” but since we had already let some of the students go on ahead, we had no way to recall them and change plans. I told him that I had looked at that same beach as we drove past, and thought the same thing, but just assumed that there must be some kind of good reason we weren’t going there, and just kept driving.

Donna and Shay are both fine, although Shay took a little while to warm up and return to the event. Donna was back in her kayak the next day with the kayak fishing class, successfully tending crab traps. Shay showed up later Friday night, and was far more forgiving of our serious lapse in judgement than I was, and grateful for our efforts on her behalf. Shay had been a star pupil in our beginning “Fear to Fun” classes the previous year, and I wince inside a little bit when I remember that the very next time I was on the water with her it was not very much Fun and instead a lot more about Fear. Jamie DID get hit in the back, just below the PFD, by the bow of my kayak. By some miracle he was not seriously injured, but he was sore for days. Friday night, I felt pretty good physically, but was very tired. The next morning, though, I felt like I had been run over by a truck. I was sore all over, and stayed sore for a few days afterwards.

Today, I was back on the water with Elderhostel clients, paddling in a quiet slough, when the sound of a siren on the adjacent highway made me jump, and I was instantly back in the surf trying to rescue Donna and Shay, and hearing sirens on shore. I think I’ve got a tiny little inkling now of what PTSD actually means.

Ever since the infamous “Eco-Chicks” trip of 2008, I’ve repeatedly said that the lesson I took away from that fiasco was that I should never lead a trip that I didn’t get to plan. For whatever boneheaded reason, I ignored that rule last Friday. We were very lucky that the outcome was not worse than it was.

77 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing a difficult lesson. We are all glad it wasn’t worse.

    BB

  2. Thanks for the detailed report. We were trying to sort out what really happened out there.

    I was in your pod which supposed be a smaller wave group, but I still saw plenty of exits. When saw the rescue taking very long (towing) and mutiple, I decided to stay up right and not challenging myself at least until all the rescue were done. And When I saw one kayak upside down without swimmer with it and realized we ( I and the empty kayak) drifting out toward sea, I decided it is time to paddle back to the beach and report it to a coach at least. When I landed, they were looking for phone and radio.
    Glad I stayed where I was able to challenge myself comfortably. But from what I read on your report and what I was able to see, I was not too far off from the most caotic spot.

    Please take care.

  3. Hey Mark,

    Great write-up.

    Couple questions about the incident.

    Was a leader designated for the trip? I am only curious about the trip dynamics and not in assigning blame. As I am doing a series of articles myself on the topic?

    Did anyone do a risk assessment on shore before heading out on the water, it sounds like no, but I am just checking?

  4. This reminds me of an artical I read about, “Paddling with Oranges”
    I wish I could find the link to the artical. I thought I had it saved. I’ll keep looking
    Don

  5. Mark, that’s a lot to digest–thank you for posting your recollection–there’s a ton here to learn from.
    I am very glad everyone is alive to tell about it.
    Thank you.

  6. Keith, there were two people designated as “lead” coaches, Sean and myself. The other two coaches were designated as assistants. We split the group into two pods, each with a lead and an assistant. There was no formal, spoken out loud risk assessment that I heard as a whole group, other than my warnings about the tide and what the plan was if someone swam. At the parking lot debrief, I asked how many people had come out of their boats, and it was 9 out of 16.

  7. Shannon Tennant

    Thanks for sharing this account, Mark. As a recent student of yours and Paul Kuthe’s at LOCO, I just wanted to affirm that I think you have a real gift for teaching. Never for one second did I question that your focus was to help each of us face personal challenges, learn new skills and grow in our confidence and talents.

    It is so easy for each of us to question our “know-how”. We’re taught not to be too pushy. You have every right to be pushy when the situation arises.

    I’m brand new to the world of kayak surfing and have limited experience with instruction–only slightly more with rock climbing and mountaineering. There is a nice, widely adopted “code” there that might translate.

    Many climb groups agree in advance that any single person on any given day can call off a climb. You don’t even have to be able to fully articulate the reason. When that agreement has been made at the outset–with the focus on personal safety and the safety of the group–you have implicit permission to “be a pain”.

    Thank you for sharing your account. I’ll send healing thoughts your way. You have a real gift for imparting the joy of kayaking–only made stronger by real experiences. Paddle on in safety and wonder.

  8. Mark, thank you for the report. I’m left without a lot to say, it sounds like a terrifying and exhausting trip and knowing your skills and experience it definitely brings great perspective and is a good reality check for all kayakers. This was well written, I’m glad you took the time to share all aspects of the experience.

  9. Wow. That’s a lot of swimming. And your assessment of the tide ended up being dead on. One of the group leaders ended up swimming too. Or did I read that wrong?

  10. no, you read that right.

  11. Takes chutzpah to post something like that on the internet where it’s going to be parsed, reviewed, etc by a host of monday morning QB’s. Thanks for taking the time and the honesty.

    Sounds like you know the places it went wrong (which starts way back before you left the HQ) and you won’t do it again – nothing teaches so well as the hot stove. Glad it was nothing worse….given the real possibilities of the day, it sounds like you got very lucky.

    After having a similar “clarifying moment” (no students involved, just us boneheads) several of us got together and wrote down not only what happened from our POV but then the steps we SHOULD have taken at each point that would have mitigated or eliminated subsequent failure points. We then all got together to compare notes and thoughts. We’re all still good friends and paddle together often.

    Glad everyone is okay!

  12. Fantastic report, Mark. Thanks. Many will learn from your hard-earned two hours.

    During my first ICE, I was the first “leader” when $#!+ hit the fan, and I too felt like the rookie of the group and didn’t take charge. It’s a tough spot.

    I have had to make two radio calls to authorities. Once on flat water, once on rough water. During the rough water call, the CG kept calling back and asking more questions. I would like to hear how people handle that.

    A simple, “Can’t talk. Gotta brace! Out.” seems rude, but effective. To the radio operator on watch, the desire for more information simply means they need to set down their coffee again. For most boaters, they can have one hand on the wheel or tiller and one hand on the radio. For us, not so easy.

    Thanks again. A great teaching moment.

    Kris Dressler

  13. Mark, there’s a wealth of information in your well-written and thoughtful report, and you have my admiration and respect for your willingness to share this mishap with the rest of the paddling community. Your personal account sounds absolutely harrowing, and it’s a testament to your skill, tenacity, and mental strength that you were able to stay in your boat under circumstances that would have sent most paddlers swimming. Ditto your commitment to the welfare of the the paddlers in the water who needed your help.

    One thing I’ve learned to greatly respect over the years is intuition; the feelings of misgiving you experienced about the choice of location for the class. Far from being “flaky”, intuition is an instantaneous emotional response that’s firmly based on prior knowledge and experience, and it always deserves a full hearing. Unfortunately, that kind of insight is easy to overlook or dismiss at the time because it doesn’t come in through the front door screaming and yelling; it’s easily drowned out in the heat of the moment.

    While you’re right that it was a big mistake not to air your intuitive feelings of misgiving when they arose, don’t beat yourself up about it. We all make mistakes, we live and hopefully learn, and you’re in really good company when it comes to that kind of error of omission. I think what’s really worth focusing on as you and the Lumpy Waters Symposium move forward is how the initial decision was made to hold a surf class in a river mouth on a strong ebb tide. Were you the only one who had reservations about the venue?

  14. This is a well written post Mark. Thank you for sharing.

    I believe it is largely accurate but I do take issue with one aspect of it. I did not and would not have “said” we were going to Netarts Bay. I did come to you with that suggestion but it was merely a suggestion. Granted it was a very bad suggestion and as I have already stated publicly at the LWS, I made a very basic error in not placing safety as the top priority when making that suggestion. However if you, the organizers or anyone else had stated that it was a bad idea to go there – which in hindsight it clearly was – I would have deferred to that point of view since I had no local knowledge of the location. Indeed the only person who did have local knowledge also thought it was a good place to go. It is so glaringly obvious now that it was a bad idea and I can only apologise to you, the assistant instructors and our students once again for my part in the decisions that put us in that dangerous situation.

    Reputation should never be used to judge someone’s ability to lead and coach a group safely. Clearly my reputation will take a big hit as a result of this incident but I really don’t care because I know I will be a better and safer coach and leader as a result. I am very glad that everyone can learn from my mistakes and will be forever thankful that no-one was seriously hurt (or worse) as a result of my actions.

    I will be writing my own account as soon as work and family commitments allow but other than the point I have made above, I believe your recollection of events to be spot on. I look forward to paddling with you again soon.

  15. Sean, I didn’t mean to sound like I was placing that kind of responsibility all on you for that decision. I did feel like by the time we met, the decision had pretty much been made, though, or at least that was the impression I got. Other than my own general feeling about river mouths and ebb tides, at that point, while we were still at HQ, I didn’t really have any solid basis to challenge that very strongly, other than to suggest the front beach, which had apparently already been ruled out. I had also never been to Netarts, and had no idea what would have made it a good choice in anyone’s mind, but since I knew I was the least experienced kayak surfer of the four of us, I just deferred, assuming that there were some special features there that were going to be useful for our class. But I did feel uneasy about it, pretty early on, and it was wholly my error in not finding it within myself to speak up and be articulate about my misgivings.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment here. As far as your reputation is concerned from my end of things, I was impressed that you came right out, right away, and admitted your own errors in judgment and apologized to everyone involved. Not everyone would have been so quickly forthcoming and humble about that. You set a good example for me and others in that regard.

  16. Mark, Thank you for this wrenching blow by blow of this incident. There is SO MUCH to learn by what you’ve written. And I can only imagine what you went through as a lead coach. By now you’ve probably rediscovered the value of your emotional responses before the incident. Do read the book “How We Decide” for further validation and some insights. In fact, send me your address and I’ll mail you a copy. I’m glad you are all OK.

  17. Mark,
    I’m glad you and all involved made it through the incident intact. Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed account of it– your willingness to post it for the benefit of all us paddlers and coaches is much appreciated. At the end of the day, I’m still proud to have been one of your coaches, and thankful to be your business partner!

  18. All understood Mark. The one person who tried to make me aware of the dangers of Netarts Bay was John Walpole. I had only just met John and didn’t know of his expertise. Oh, how I wish I had listened to him! One of my many take-aways from this will be to ensure that as far as the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium is concerned, we will ensure that the locations chosen by visiting coaches for each day are appropriate and that they listen and take heed of the advice of the local experts that we will put with each group.

  19. Jon was actually talking to me about that later, and said that he wished he had just said “don’t go there at all”. He said he was kind of trying to steer us away from that venue, but he said he wasn’t really forceful about it.

    Still, any one of us should have been able to just look at the chart and look at the tide book, and know to avoid it.

  20. I learned a lot from these posts. Our group will not be in the severe conditions you experienced but there are dangers. The lines below are my take-away.

    Group members must voice concerns as they occur so they can be addressed.

    Any member straying from the group for whatever reason will cause the group to halt and regroup. Group members will not rely on the leaders to track this. We are all responsible.

    Any group member can halt the group and call for a reassessment.

  21. Mark, thank you so much for sharing your ordeal. This is the most comprehensive and clear incident report I have ever read. I was able to visualize everything that you wrote about. The complexity of the situation boggled my mind. How you and the others were able to continue on in a constant chaotic rescue situation for two hours is amazing and praiseworthy. I am so glad that no one was seriously injured or worse.

    I will ponder your words and those of the other instructors and students who were with you on that day. There is so much here for me to absorb and learn.

    Know that other instructors have gone through difficult ordeals with their classes. I have. I remember I blamed myself and wanted to hide what happened. It takes a lot of courage to put down your thoughts and feelings from that day. Thank you again for sharing with us.

  22. Mark, Sean, Richard, Jamie, & Fred-

    Thank you for your accurate and honest account of the situation. Shay is my girlfriend and kayaking partner. When I first came back to HQ Friday and Shay briefly told me the story, my first reaction was “What the hell were you guys doing there on an ebb?” As a regular at the OR coast, I’m familiar with the dangers of Netarts on an ebb. As Shay told me the story in greater detail, I was left with more admiration of the coaches’ determination to bring everyone in despite the challenges, than my initial anger at the decision to take a group of intermidiate boaters there. At the end of the day, the lost boat & gear mean nothing compared to her safe return. We all make mistakes, and at the end of the day it’s how you deal with those mistakes that means the most. The tenacity you guys displayed in not giving up despite the challenges is quite impressive, and Shay and I are both truly thankful for all the coaches efforts above all else. We’ve both taken a ton from the experience and are better kayakers & coaches because of it. Thank you all.

  23. Mark,
    If you or someone else with this experience doesn’t mind, could you describe and quantify the mentioned and it sounds like everyone knows horrors of the ebb at a river mouth.Particularly this one. I don’t have river mouths to play in and on around where I paddle to know one way or the other. I do have some pretty good ideas but would really appreciate a description. Other non river mouth paddlers might be wondering the same.
    As everyone else has expressed I will express same, great report, clear and easy to visualize, on top of the fact you have it going on enough to put it out there for us. Thanks!
    Jack

  24. Very glad you are OK. If you are in our neck of the water in the future look me up and we’ll have a beer at the Schooner Lounge on Netarts Bay to share stories. Several years ago a huge ocean surge (7ft plus) came into Sand Lake Estuary and sucked us out into 20ft storm surf. Now I donate to every year to NOFD Water Rescue.

    You owe me a beer though, because I’ve had 100 people ask me if it was my crew out in the ocean … ha ha ha… Kindest Regards,

    Marcus,
    Kayak Tillamook

  25. Thank you very much, Mark, for sharing your story. It can’t have been easy to open yourself up and be vulnerable, but by sharing your experience you are helping all of us to be more aware and better able to deal with difficult situations.

    Although I am an experienced kayaking instructor, I have no personal experience kayaking Netarts bay, or anywhere along the Oregon coast. With this in mind I am curious: What was the danger of letting the current take you (or any one of your struggling students) out onto open water? Were/ are there safe beaches to land at in the vicinity of the bay?

    Thank you for your time,

    -Matt Krizan

  26. Thanks for writing up your experience. Studying mishaps is a great way to learn and prevent future incidents. In this case, I think some folks may come to the conclusion that there’s an easy answer: Speak up when one has misgivings. Unfortunately, that lesson is an oversimplification that may leave a lot of readers feeling smug – and not really any safer.

    Kayaking has risks. If I’d always listened to my misgivings, I’d really have ended up skipping a lot of trips that were actually within my ability. I was terrified before my first down-wind run in the gorge – but ended up loving it. I was terrified before my first trip to Deception Pass, but had a great time. As my experience has grown, I can assess risks better for myself, but when faced with every new hazard, the knowledge and judgement of those with more experience than me is tremendously useful. Given that, it’s easy to see why one might hesitate to speak up when one is working with people who have more experience.

    You mentioned that in a prior trip, you learned never to lead a trip you didn’t plan. In reading about that trip, it sounded like everyone (the non-kayak leaders, the eco-girls, etc.) may have assumed that certain information was common knowledge when it wasn’t. For example, I’m aware that not all black clothing is water appropriate and that ugg boots probably won’t do well in the water but double checking that each person is properly outfitted on every trip is very time consuming, not to mention a bit condescending, and doesn’t encourage people to take responsibility for their own safety which often increases risk. And while that might have been useful on that trip, 1000 other things might also have been useful and coming up with all of them is unrealistic.

    One has to balance between paralysis from risk avoidance and taking reasonable precautions in the name of safety. While this experience may have fallen toward the higher risk side of the scale, over correcting also presents problems and finding the right balance is genuinely challenging.

  27. @Jack and Matthew, regarding the ebb tide. For one thing, an ebb tide at a constriction like this greatly speeds up the current, and also greatly jacks up the waves and confused seas where the outflow meets the ocean, making for conditions that were much more difficult than this class was able to manage successfully. The seas that we ended up getting pulled out into were steep, close together and larger than what we were looking for our coaching purposes. Certainly there were beaches both to the north and south of us, but it would have taken some time with the longshore current to get far away from the river mouth enough to make a reasonable landing, and with a student out of her boat, and cold and wet, time was of the essence. If we had decided to let ourselves get swept further out, then we would have needed to travel some distance to make a good landing, and then we would have been dealing with her hypothermia at a greater distance from the parking lot and would still have needed external rescue in the end. As it was, where we were was hard to spot from the beach for the rescuers. Had we let ourselves get swept out to sea, I think it would have been even harder for us to be found without a helicopter.

    @Mycroft, certainly your point is well taken, but in this situation, the venue that we chose was definitely not appropriate for our purposes. There were plenty of other venues that we could have chosen that still would have challenged these students, and probably even scared them a little bit, but would have not ended in an outside rescue, a hypothermic student and the loss of a kayak. The first time I got knocked down in the surf, I was scared, and it was only like 3′ surf or something. The first time I went to Deception Pass, I was definitely scared. But both of those situations were actually appropriate places for me to be, with my skills at the time. The mouth of the Netarts on a strong, full moon ebb with a 6 at 10 swell forecast was not an appropriate place to put a dozen intermediate surf students on the water all at once. Our students would have been plenty challenged in a safer, smarter venue had we made a better choice.

    @Marcus, sorry about that!

  28. Mark,
    Thanks for the response. Just to be clear: I wasn’t in anyway, second guessing your responses to any of this event. All of your logic/intentions/responses as told, made perfect sense to me. Says a lot for the clarity of your report. No, all I really was wondering if there was more to playing at a river mouth than I aware of. But what you mentioned confirms what my understanding/experience is for a strong outflowing current hitting incoming swell. Fun with the right amount of swell, with the right amount of paddlers with the right skills. Deviate much in the wrong direction, from any of the previous and it goes downhill very fast.
    We regularly play in such a condition at the outflow of an inland coastal lagoon. When there is an extreme tidal exchange, very high,high tide straight to a very low,low tide, the flow stands the incoming swell up very nicely for fun. Assuming of course, the right size swell. But as soon soon as the lagoon is emptied it’s done. Sound like the same effect at this river mouth, inland accumulation of water to magnify the out going flow.Just didn’t know if there was much difference with this being a river. Thanks much for your response. I wasn’t try to take the thread off on a tangent. Just trying to learn a bit about someone else’s events in someone else’s piece of ocean.Your reports have done just that! Jack

  29. This reminded me of a discussion with my brother Tom, a pilot for United Airlines, as was my dad. Tom told me that the culture in the cockpit has changed quite a bit since my dad’s days. In the old days, everybody feared the captain, whose word was the law.

    Over time, it appeared that a common thread in many air disasters was impatience, poor judgment, or errors by the captain, and the junior crew being reluctant to speak up due to fear of rebuke or looking stupid, tradition, or, or thinking that the captain must be right.

    Much of the training now centers on letting everybody know that they are responsible for safety. The junior most crew is not only encouraged, but required, to raise any safety concerns, and the captain is trained to praise and encourage this behavior, even if the concern is nothing of consequence.

    It looks like the junior crew here was too much in awe of Sean’s reputation to raise a legitimate concern. It might be good for the organizers of the event, and those with higher “status” in the kayak world, specifically tell the junior crew that they were encouraged and required to bring up any safety concerns. The senior instructors should praise this, perhaps even solicit concerns. Knowing Sean, I am sure that any safety concern would be seriously and courteously considered.

    But I know that it is human nature that when you are an “outsider” that you are reluctant to say anything to rock the boat. That is why the airlines changed their cockpit policies.

    The Tenerife air disaster was a classic example of the hierarchical system of cockpit order being responsible for a tragedy. http://jom.sagepub.com/content/16/3/571.abstract

  30. Here is a free link to that study, which considered the attitudes of captains versus first officers. http://www.ou.edu/cls/online/lstd5683b/pdfs/weick.pdf
    It is clear from the black box that the first officer and engineer realized that the captain was making a risky decision in taking off, but that after being rebuked before, seemed incapable of challenging that decision.

  31. 1) everyone is alive and well with out any need for serious medical help. That’s a good thing.
    2) everyone’s been given an opportunity to learn with out a really high cost of tuition or burned memories to live with.
    3) I see a lot of acceptance of the terms and conditions here on this forum.

    Everyone has a healthy attitude about all this and lessons are being learned all over the place. I’m relatively new to kayaking (2004) and have always enjoyed the overall attitude of the group no matter who I’m with. The written account of this event along with the responses has tons of text book examples to read about and ponder. I’ve learned so much from this entire entry.

    I know I’ll never enjoy that level of kayaking and have every desire to paddle protected channels and sloughs. This account has confirmed that all over the place.

    Please be careful out there and keep up the good work!!!

    Lar

  32. “I know better than this. But I ended up second guessing my own knowledge and experience, and automatically deferring to people of a higher skill level than I thought myself to be.”

    “…I’ve repeatedly said that the lesson I took away from that fiasco was that I should never lead a trip that I didn’t get to plan.”

    That’s all there is to it, Mark. Spot on. I’ve had to learn the same lessons, but in a different discipline. Its all about sound judgement, which you have. But it can get strangely convoluted in a group situation with people you don’t know. I wonder if the other coaches felt similarly…and the students for that matter.

    Best, Tom

  33. John Schlesinger

    Hi All,

    Well I was one of the students in Seans group, also the driver of the Van that Mark talked about. Yes Paul Steinberg and I headed out to Happy Camp (Netartes Bay) first, we had asked first if that was okay. As we went Paul also noticed McPhillips and wondered why we didn’t use that beach for surfing.

    We were unloaded and ready to go as Mark stated. There was the normal group meeting, discussion of the area, what we were going to do, how far out, etc.

    In our pod Sean had asked Jamie to be in the green water and mark the furthest out point we should go. We were told to launch, travel out in the green water and than to start surfing. Looking back other than it being decided later on that the venue was not a good one there was a huge mistake that I feel that both Paul and I were also part of. Though being students in the class, Paul has lead some group trips and I became an L-3 ACA instructor this year. We both should have known better, even though we hadn’t heard to gather up on the water. Instead of taking some inititative though we hadn’t heard to wait on the water to go out as a group, we should have known to do that. Hind sight is great. We did head out and besides the ebb heading out to sea it was also pulling us south, into the surf zone. We worked back to the green water and when we felt comfortable we started to try and surf these waves. Larger than I had been in before and broached and had long rides but had stayed up right, till I saw Donna S’s boat floating but didn’t see Donna. I assumed she was in front of me so I was pushing her boat in the direction I felt she was in. I made the mistake of letting her boat get between me and the breaking swells and got knocked over, missed roll but do a reentry. After that I saw Donna with her boat and other person helping her. I felt I would be a hinderance with a full load of water on board so I headed to calmer water to pump out with Paul’s help. We were drifting back into the surf so broke off and headed for shore. I emptied my boat, Paul came in for a short rest and we started out again to work the swells. At this point someone came along and asked us to go back to the beach as there were mulitple problems on the water, many of which we couldn’t see from where we were.

    Once on the beach someone came in and asked us to call the CG. I had been told it would be best to leave extra gear, paddle, radio, etc in van and not have the extra gear to get in the way in the surf. I won’t leave a radio behind again. I ran to van and got the radio and contacted the CG and about the same time someone had gotten the cell phone and got hold of 911.

    The rest has been written by Mark, Sean and others. Was in the water with another student when Shay got back and we helped her to the ambulance. Joked with her and she smiled and laughed and that sure was good to have happened as it made it seem that she would be fine.

    All in all there was a lot learned that day by all of us and sure glad that no one got seriously hurt and all were out paddling the next day. I took a safety and rescue class with Sean at the Salmon and will take more classes I am sure with him and others. Will be back at Lumpy again. But I will pay a lot more attention to details even as a student. In the end I feel that we are all responsible to speak up if we see something that doesn’t seem right for ourselves or others. We should always be a team out on the water. Stay well and stay safe.

  34. Thank you for the extra information about the outer waters and potential difficulties using adjacent beaches. I think you guys were hosed no matter what you chose to do, and it makes sense that you chose to fight your way back to the beach you launched from.

    -Matt

  35. I have experience at this location, including a tragedy. This aerial photo is at low tide. As the tide goes up, the breakers move up into the bay.

    At all tide levels, this surf does not carry you to shore, very unlike shore surfing. It just carries you to lessening breakers further in, with no shore close by to either side either. So you need to be able to dependably roll here. This bay has very little freshwater flow, the action is all tidal. The tide flows during this incident were very unusually strong for this location.

    Kayak surf rescues are problematic at best, you can never count on rescue by another kayak. You accept the risk of being on your own when you venture into the surf in your kayak. During the tragic trip I was on to this spot, the conditions were not particularly challenging by our standards. Late in the day, at around slack tide, our best kayaker, for unknown reasons, was unable to roll up or exit. Assisted rescue was not successful in time, and he died. The spare paddle was still on the foredeck when I recovered the boat from the beach later.

    You have a lot of guts to write this up, Mark, thanks, very instructive.

  36. Phil, I didn’t realize until later that evening when someone mentioned it, that this was the same place that Dave died. That was a bit jarring to hear, although from everything I’ve heard of that incident, it’s unlikely that his death was particularly related to the conditions that day. Still, it’s no wonder that place gave me the heebie-jeebies…

  37. Mark:

    I believe you are quite interested in Greenland techniques and wondered if you thought your time rolling about with a GP and doing, I suppose, those “trick” rolls was of benefit during this “adventure.”

    Curious as to the other sub-groups which were in the same symposium class. You indicated they were safely ashore when you got there which suggested perhaps they had avoided the problems you group encountered and wondering how and why if so.

  38. Mark & everyone,

    All of you have made great, valid points about this incident. I am so glad that everyone ended up being ok and I think it is a testament to the strength of the coaches and the quick response from local authorities that the only casualty was a kayak. So it goes. I do have one thing to add that I believe has been taken for granted thus far, and that is this:

    The coast is a dynamic environment and conditions can change out there in the blink of an eye. Even with all of the best preparation, planning and training in the world, things like this can and will happen. While I believe that better local knowledge and communication between the coaches and students would have helped in this situation, I don’t believe that the selection of venue and the errors of judgement you’ve equated with it is quite as cut-and-dried as it seems.

    From talking to several of the coaches and students involved in the incident, it is clear that the conditions you guys faced out there were hairy and inappropriate for the ability level of the group; however that doesn’t mean that an alternative location wouldn’t have been just as challenging or dangerous. Take the McPhillips break, for instance, which has been mentioned several times throughout this thread. While that break often looks great from the road, it is in fact a very exposed beach which often gets blasted with large ocean swell and fierce winds. That break in particular tends to close out HARD, and a 6-10 foot day there would have likely been miserable for the students and coaches alike. While there’s less tidal influence there than the mouth of a bay, it’s also significantly more difficult to paddle out through that surf break without much in the way of a rip current to help. I know because I have gotten HAMMERED there before.

    You also mentioned the surf break at Pacific City, which in a vaccuum is a fine choice for a class for a variety of reasons (protection from the wind, more consistent and reliable conditions, close access to facilities and warm clothes/food, no vicious ebb currents). It also presents a unique set of challenges of its own. Pacific City is crowded on a normal day, and you and everyone else who has been to Lumpy Waters in the past can attest to just how crowded it gets when 100 sea kayakers show up and mingle with the surfers, swimmers, tourists and dory boats. On a good day with that many people out there there is still a high chance of injury (in my group on Sunday we had two people surf into each other and had boat on ribcage contact) and damage to boats (from people surfing into each other and also from pitch-poling off the notoriously shallow bottom at PC). Again, I am not questioning your reservations about the tides or doubting that there was a lapse of judgement on several levels that directly contributed to this incident, I just want to offer a word of caution and remind everyone that although the challenges and hazards at places like PC and McPhillips are different than what you guys faced out there at Netarts, they are not necessarily safer places to be and changing venues would not have necessarily prevented an incident like this from happening.

    I’d also like to second Mycroft’s point in particular that kayaking is an inherently risky activity, and there is certainly a fine line between being paralyzed by fear and heeding the warnings we get from that same emotion. If we do not challenge ourselves and venture outside our comfort zones from time to time, most of us would end up sitting on the couch all day instead of going paddling. I know that is true because it has been my biggest obstacle to overcome as a kayaker.

    I am glad that you and Sean and everyone else that participated on Friday are back safe and sound and learned from the day’s events. Richard, Jamie and Shay are all personal friends of mine and I thank you for your contributions and for providing such a thorough and detailed account of the incident and for helping to get them all back safe and sound. In hindsight it is easy to second guess decisions and disect every detail of an incident, I just think it’s important to keep in mind that the ocean is so dynamic it can fluster even the best prepared paddlers on the planet (you and the rest of the cast of characters from the story are living proof of that). Anyhow, I want to thank you and everyone else for contributing to the discussion, it’s not easy to put yourself out there and I hope nobody has fired off the “you guys are #&%*@ morons comments,” that is certainly not my intention. I hope that you and everyone else are rested and feeling better, I know Jamie and Shay are doing much better now. Again, thanks for sharing and for inspiring e a thoughtful discussion.

  39. Ed, my background with Greenland style rolling very definitely contributed to my repeated success at rolling and staying in the kayak. Absolutely.

    The other “sub-group” that was ashore was basically everyone in the class except all the coaches and two swimmers. I think some of them managed to see what was going wrong around them early on enough to escape before getting pulled out where we were. I haven’t seen any of their incident reports, though.

  40. Below is my personal recollection of the Friday Netarts trip. This is an excerpt from a longer write up of the Lumpy Waters I am working on. It is very much from my own perspective and not meant to be definitive. Even a few weeks later many details are becoming fuzzy. So, for what its worth – - -

    Friday morning I was up early to get a bit of pre-event paddling in. Steve Hufstadter and I had found each other and we went for a quick morning paddle off of the cape, out to the whistle buoy and then a quick circuit of the Haystack. Swell, looked smaller than its forecasted 6’.

    I had chosen Long Boat surfing for that day’s event. I believe the put in was originally scheduled to be Oceanside, but that had been scratched out and a new destination was written – Netarts. I associated Netarts with paddling in the Bay from when I was just learning to sea kayak. I remembered plenty of clapotis from previous trips, but no breaking surf. I wondered at the change and thought perhaps conditions might be too mild; little did I know.

    Instead of driving to the event on the van, I opted to ride with my friend John Schlesinger whom I had met at last year’s Lumpy Water. We checked with one of the instructors for the event and he gave us the go ahead to drive on our own. John had acquired an enormous silver FedEx type delivery truck that he lives out of during kayaking expeditions; we chucked our gear in and took off. We arrive at the put in at Happy Camp well ahead of the rest of the group and set about suiting up and preparing our gear for the day. Later, in accounts of the Friday troubles, I saw mention of our arrival at the put-in ahead of the others as a reason why the instructors chose to stay at Netarts location. This seems strange to me, as it would have taken us only a few minutes to put our boats back on the rack and drive to another location. At no time did anyone say anything to us about leaving Netarts,

    Before putting in, the leaders held a short meeting. We spent a little while looking at the water. The instructors cautioned us that the waves we saw would look bigger when we got close. One of the instructors mentioned that the tide was ebbing and that this would give us better rides. I wondered at this. I lead and organize trips for OOPS, a local kayak club in Portland, and I would never locate an outing at the mouth of a bay during the ebb, especially a large class such as this where no one really knew each other’s ability. Despite my reservations, I did not say anything. I remember thinking “Well, these guys really know what they are doing so, it must be OK.”

    The instructors spent some time going over surfing safety. They discussed setting up a circuit so that we would lessen the chance of collision. They spent time talking about the danger of being hit by a kayak and even discussed rolling upside down before you are about to be hit.

    At one point, one of the instructors asked us to raise our hands if we were “too scared” to go on the water. Of course no one said they were scared

    After this orientation, they divided the group up into two sections. I do not know how the instructors decided to divide up the class. As this was the first trip of the day and the first day of the event, they would have had no way of really knowing our ability, so it was probably more or less a random division. One group was going to stay inside near shore on the smaller waves and the other (my group) was to head out further and surf the larger waves.

    They pointed out a rip, which we were to use to get outside, and a buoy which was to be our turn around point.

    On the way out, one of the students asked me to help with his kayak as his foot peg was set wrong. I tried for a while to fix it, but could not reach far enough inside his cockpit to adjust it. Sean Morley, the lead instructor, happened by and stopped to help the student. I resumed my trip out in the rip. When I got to the buoy, I started working my way across the bay to find a clear place for my first run in.

    The waves were much bigger than I had surfed before. They were at least six feet and very steep. I would not have attempted this in normal circumstances. The rides were great. Long and fast. There were many lines of waves and very confused seas. I am no surfing expert and I wiped out many times. However I had no trouble rolling up, though I did spend some very long moments under water being worked by the waves. At one point, the underwater agitation actually ripped the water bladder out of my hydration backpack, but bad experience in the past, had taught me to wait and never give up the roll. I use a very buoyant Novorca Greenland paddle and just used the standard Greenland roll. It worked beautifully every time, despite what I have often been told about its shortcoming in chaotic conditions and heavy seas. Not disputing that it might have weaknesses in such conditions, but it certainly worked for me.

    After a while I started to feel invulnerable; I just knew I would roll up. Once I stopped worrying about being knocked over, I worked on my surfing and was gradually able to take longer and longer rides an even avoid side surfing (sometimes). Don’t worry if it sounds like bragging, I got my comeuppance on Sunday, but that is another story.

    We were all quite spread out, and with the high seas it was hard to see my fellow kayakers. After a while though, I realized that many folks were out of their boats. I even saw Shay, who was later in serious trouble, come out of her boat in and then do a cowboy scramble back in on a steep wave. “Wow,” I thought, “that was cool.” At first this did not concern me. The previous year’s Lumpy Waters surf classes were carnage as well; Boats and swimmers everywhere. I, not having a combat roll last year, was one of them and I had some very long swims back to the beach.

    With all the adrenaline and exhilaration of the great surfing, I did not do much more than move further out so that I would not inadvertently plow into a swimmer. I had forgotten my own trepidations over the ebb and moreover was in an inwardly focused mode –this was an organized event, our instructors were the best in the world-don’t worry, have fun.

    At one point I saw that John had a flooded boat. I paddled over to him to help him pump. We both went in to take a rest. I did notice then that quite a few fellow students were on the beach, apparently having called it a day. I did not think this through –e.g. if half the class was already too beat to continue, then others might be in even more trouble.

    I set out for another series of wild rides. It was pretty empty by then, most folks either safely on the beach or (unknown to me) in serious trouble in other parts of the bay.

    I finally realized there was trouble brewing when I saw one of the trip leaders raise his paddle in a come to me gesture. I came towards him and saw that he was helping, Donna, a woman some years than myself, paddle in. She was clearly exhausted and her boat was half full of water. The instructor looked harried. When I volunteered to take Donna in, he left in a flash and paddled back out into the heavy break where I could see a number of folks banded together, though I could not see what they were doing.

    I paddled next to Donna back into shore. She was too tired to respond or even look at me but she had intense determination. She kept paddling, literally panting with exertion and exhaustion until finally she got back to shore.

    I turned around and went back out to the knot of paddlers sensing that something was wrong. Halfway out, a good paddler who had come along as photographer, came paddling hell bent for leather towards me. He said that Sean Morley had told him to go in to call the Coast Guard.

    I asked him if they needed my help and he said yes. When I got closer, I could see that there were a number of instructors trying to help someone in the water. It was Shay. She was clinging to the stern of a kayak paddled by an extremely tired instructor. They were not making it back through the big waves and the ebb. Shay slipped off the back of his kayak. I believe I asked if they wanted me to help. I think they said yes (memory is funny in these situation). In any event, I started maneuvering to pick up Shay. We were still in the middle of the worst of the surf and I was knocked over a number of times, but still had my roll, so I came up each time.

    When I go close to her I could see that she was all out. She was floating in the water and not making an effort to swim. I extended my paddle to her to pull her over to my boat. At first she had trouble grasping the paddle. When she did grasp it I worried that this was the wrong thing to have done and that she might suddenly panic and pull me over. When she got close enough to me, I told her to let go of the paddle and to climb up on my stern. Unfortunately, when she got on my stern I was very unstable. I could not stay upright in the breaking waves and poor Shay was afloat again. I felt bad that my attempt to help had only made her colder and more tired. At this point the instructors came up and reclaimed Shay. Someone politely but firmly asked me to return to shore.

    When I got back to the beach, I could see that there were now a number of rescue vehicles present, at least one or two fire truck type vehicles as well as an ambulance, with other cars parked in the lot and more arriving.

    Folks on the beach were doing there best to be helpful, but there was obviously very little order. No one seemed to know how many paddlers were in the water and even how many paddlers and instructors had set out. Moreover, there was no communication between those on the beach and the folks in the water. I was surprised and a bit dismayed to witness no radio traffic at all. It appears to me that none of the instructors had brought radios. I also had no radio, having left mine in John’s van.

    I told one of the rescue personnel what I had seen, Shay in the waters surrounded by paddlers having a hard time getting her in, and what I had heard, that there was at least one other kayaker somewhere in the water without a boat.

    By this time, there was more rescue craft assembled: at least two largish coast guard boats offshore, though the water was too shallow at Netarts for them to come in. Also, just visible coming up to the bay form the South were two jet skis moving at a rapid clip. As they came closer, we could see that they were bouncing in the heavy seas and that there were two men on each jet ski as well as a litter on the back. It was truly thrilling to see them come in. All they lacked was a bit of music perhaps the William Tell Overture or the Ride of the Valkyries.

    They at least had been in radio contact with the rescuers on the beach and they careened right out to the trouble spots. Soon they came zooming back with Shay on a rescue litter and one of the riders crouched protectively over her. We got Shay off the litter and bundled her into the ambulance. The jet ski team barley paused before roaring back out to take care of the other folks in the water. By this time a helicopter was also on scene.

    Pretty soon it was over. Shay, we heard was all right, cold and tired but basically fine. The other paddler in the water was OK and had been able to make it over to the southwestern spit by dint of her and the Lumpy Waters instructors’ efforts. I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Things could have gone quite otherwise. We were lucky.

    Analysis
    Much has already been written about this incident so I will not rehash all material above. The following are some points from my own perspective.

    I am familiar with this general area of the coast, though I had never paddled in this specific location. I do know that I would never bring a group of unknown paddlers to the mouth of a Bay on the Oregon coast in heavy seas on the ebb. Never.
    So why did I not say anything event though I was thinking it? I believe that the negative side of respecting leadership and reputation is the tendency to become vaguely child-like. These are experts, they are famous (in our own little paddling world), they must be right. Not sure I can explain this in any other fashion. I was certainly not the only one standing on the beach that knew better yet failed to speak. Not good.

    During the pre-trip talk, when I heard the instructor ask if anyone was too scared, I knew that was a terrible mistake. No one is going to put himself or herself in such a category. In my opinion, if you give folks a chance to decline with dignity, many will do so. Better would have been to offer everyone the chance to warm up in the surf near shore rather than just packing everyone off to zip out into the rip. Better would have been to have a discussion about rolling and self-rescue in heavy conditions. My guess is that many of the class would have decide to sit it out or just stay near shore rather than bomb out a couple of hundred yards in high seas. Here again I could have said something and did not.

    Sean called out not having an assembly point offshore as contributing to the mayhem. Presumably this would have allowed some folks to self-select or for the instructors to decide that we should not continue. Perhaps, but I doubt it. There were no students on this trip who had been out in such conditions. None of us could have evaluated it based on experience. I also doubt if any of the instructors would have pulled the plug. They could have done it numerous times before that point if they had wished and they had not.

    I also do not think that the instructors could have done much about the subsequent carnage at that point. Once you are in the water in such conditions, you are basically on your own.

    John mentioned in his reply to the blog that he wished he had brought this radio. So do I. We could have been in touch with the rescuers on shore and each other in the water. It would have saved much confusion and in another situation, could have saved lives. Interestingly, I talked to one of the instructors about this later and he said that he did not think a radio would have been useful in such conditions. I frankly do not agree. Even in high seas you do what you need to. I will bring my radio from now on. Period.

    I still feel bad that I could not offer real assistance to Shay. Indeed, I could have made things worse. The last thing she needed was to spend more of her strength getting up on my kayak only to have me tip over in the waves. The lesson here is one I have written about before, but it seems I have not learned. Be able to handle the conditions you paddle in. That means if you paddle in heavy seas, you should have mastered rescue skills in the same conditions. This is not something to learn by doing.

    All this said, I remain a huge fan of Lumpy Waters. The sea kayaking we love has inherent risks. That is part of the sport. The folks at Alder Creek and Lumpy Waters do us a tremendous service by putting themselves on the line to help us acquire the skills we need to paddle in an extremely challenging environment. I intend to keep going to Lumpy as long as I can.

    I also came away with respect for Sean and the other leaders. they owned up to their decisions with dignity and honesty. Part of the burden of leadership is not being able to make excuses. Sean did not. I took a very challenging class with Sean on the Sunday following this event and hope to do more in the future. The challenge for us all is to respect leadership and others’ years of experience while still preserving our own voice.

  41. I cannot count the number of times I have had to relearn a lesson or wished I had trusted my gut instead of pushing the envelope. You do us a great service by sharing, openly and honestly, your experience. It could have been any of us who lead, make decisions and are responsible for others. I guess you are as human as the rest of us.

    More importantly, when it hit the fan you focused on your charges and did not go to the “poor me” place. Once it hit the fan, you did all you could to take care of folks while always assessing the risk to yourself. I am glad in ended well. I feel like I’ve learned something important (again) from reading your account.

  42. Paul, thanks for your comments. A couple of things:

    I did carry a radio, as I always do, but in the situation I was in, I found that I was unable to spare the energy and attention required to use it. Certainly others, had they been carrying radios, could have moved out of the really hairy stuff and used theirs, but where I was, the radio was not particularly useful to me. I heard Sean at the beginning of class, on the beach, calling for people to head out with clean decks and no superfluous gear, but I had no idea that people took that to mean no radios, and subsequently left them ashore. I was a little surprised to hear at the end of the day that people had left radios behind. I should have double checked, at least with my own pod, about that.

    The comments about “anybody scared to go out there” hit the nail right on the head. In my own usual practice as a coach, I NEVER do this. My usual protocol, one that I employed to very good success earlier this summer at Loco Roundup classes, is this: we gather at the put in, preferably having arrived together, with the kayaks STILL LOADED on the trailer, and we observe the conditions and the venue as a group for a while, and discuss what we’re seeing. At some point, I will ask everyone to close their eyes, and hold up anywhere from one to five fingers above their heads, one meaning “no way!” and five meaning “no problem!”. That way, I get an honest appraisal from everyone in the group, without anyone knowing what someone else’s response was. Anytime I get even one person holding up one finger, then we change venues and/or plans. No shame, no peer pressure. We did exactly this at a surf venue at a Loco class, got a one and a zero, and hopped back in the vans and changed venues and lesson plans for the day, and everyone was perfectly happy. It helped that I was working with a coach who I knew and had worked with before, and we were operating on the same wavelength and were both accustomed to using that system.

    Unfortunately in this situation, we had people who had already arrived, geared up and unloaded before I ever even saw the venue. Worse, when I finally finished fiddling with van and trailer and gear and got caught up to my pod, my assistant had already foreclosed my opportunity to do this, just as I walked up, by saying something along the lines of “everyone’s good to go, right?” and I didn’t see how I would be able to backtrack that and start over. Certainly in the future, I won’t let that happen again.

  43. This is my report to the event organizer (fixed some wording errors). I was a lucky one who did stay in comfortable area, but not too far from the caotic place. I write this here just to show how quickly things can change. I did not think it was that bad till I read this report by Mark, and I was just having fun till I saw Donna’s empty kayak drifting toward sea. I still think no-one really predicted it can be that bad. People might have thought ” Oh boy! it might be a lot of work, but it will be OK at the end.” IF anyone really thought it can be dangerouse like that, at least we would have some kind of plan for “worst case”? It just dose not make sense to me that no one ( including all those coaches who noticed “Netarts Bay”on the wall) really spoke up to raise the concern if it’s really that easy to predict that condition.

    We learned a lot about kayaking from this incident and I’ll never forget this. And I’ll never forget what our paddling buddies have to face if I don’t use my good judgement and build rock solid faundation.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Student meeting:
    Coaches asked us what kind of place we want to go. I said “somewhere clean waves not too big”. We decided on Netarts Bay mouth.

    At beach, another pre-launch meeting:
    We were not asked if we are familiar to the carachtor of the river mouth( or mouth of bay in this case), but were explained what to expect, like deep water continuers waves and riding the current back instead on washed to the beach and punching through back.
    We were asked what kind of surf experience we have (This might have happened at base camp.) But most of us did not talk about what kind of condition they have experience in and what kind of condition they are comfortable in. I gave my information as ” Did surfing twice ( that is 2 days) this summer in 3-4 feet waves, 6feet the most, start feeling the controlling the boat instead of just side surfing. failed roll ( wet exited) once on my offside this summer. I don’t like dumping waves.”

    We were asked if we are comfortable with the condition we saw there. No-one seemed intimidated by the condition; at least no one spoke up. I felt just OK looking at there are milder area and bigger area. I saw it as good mix of challenging and playing safe.
    We were divided into 2 groups, bigger wave pod, and smaller wave pod. I was in smaller wave pod( thanks God!!).

    Launched around 2:15, assuming from time of meeting at base camp, travel, loading and unloading, another pre-launch meeting.

    The condition my pod was in was not too difficult to negotiate, I thought, at least for keeping up right. Waves were big, but not steep. Not dumping, just spilling. I even needed to speed up trying to catch waves and many of them just went under me ( remember this clearly and I remember my coach was yelling at me “paddle paddle paddle!!”). But still I can see if you are not familiar to surf waves it can capsize your boat. I say so because, although I could not catch waves often, I still had to brace into the waves after my boat broached. I got a few good rides relatively straight down, buried my bow just a few times but not too deep so I could recover it without capsizing, and more than few bongo sliding. The bongo sliding was not hard at all comparing to what I experienced last 2 Lumpy Waters class at the beach at the Kiwanda. Paddling back up to the starting point, I was surprised to see the confusing wave pattern and pyramid shape waves. they were big and steep, but did not try to capsize my kayak like surfing wave dose, I think it was more like huge clapotice.

    After maybe 20-30minutes, as I wait the waves open up for me to try riding, I saw 2-3 wet exits and rescue works underway. I could not tell who is who. one point, I believe I saw one was rope towing a kayak while swimmer at the rescuer’s stern ( my memory is hazy, it might be another rescuer’s). And another rescue work at far beyond. At that time I believe I saw another capsized kayak, and I decided it was not the good time to try push my limit and my priority became to stay upright at least until all the rescue work was completed. It was not crazy condition for me, so I just start paddling around to get used to the rough water paddling. I was paddling around maybe 10-15 minutes, saw another yellow kayak with male paddler swiming alone, his ( I think his) paddle float floating away. He was working on his scramble self rescue while I kept my eyes on him. I don’t have rescue skill in the surf, and coaches told us not to do it in the surf zone and just let the wave carry the kayak to the non-surf zone for us to do rescue, also I was not sure if that was still the surf zone or not, so I did not go to help that time, but he made back in.
    And right after that I saw another white hull kayak up side down maybe 30 yards away, and could not see swimmer with it. At that time I could see several kayakers (6-8 kayakers I think) were on the beach, I simply thought they were just taking short break. Again, I kept my eyes on that to see if I can see swimmer on the other side but could not find her/him. I tried to wait till wave carries it to non-surf zone ( where it might be already there). I felt like it was several minutes passed since I found the white hull one upside down and noticed I and the capsized kayak were both drifting toward out to sea and decided I would better paddle to the beach to report it to a coach at least. I did not have towbelt with me.

    I reached to the beach and they knew there was kayak floating ( Donna or Danna’s Sterling) and another swimmer ( Shay) needing help and they were looking for radio and phone to call Coast Guard. Beach walker helped us calling 911, and someone ran to car to get radio and Sheriff’s truck arrived maybe within 10minutes.
    Sheriff needed the information about how many members are involved, but we the students did not know exact, all we knew was 4 coaches and at least 2 swimmers out there. It wasn’t clear if there wasn’t any more till much later when coach Sean M came in and looked at the member list. Someone was able to see ( with sheriff’s binocular from on top of the truck) one ( Danna) was on the spit on the other side of bay. 2 jet skis came, one helicopter hovering over, Coach Mark W. came in, someone came in with tow rope all tangled and wrapped around his kayak ( I think it was coach Jamie K.). Shay was carried in ( actually, she was smiling and with good spirit) and taken to the truck to get treated. Shay lost her kayak to the ocean, her drysuite was leaking, that is why she was cold.
    I felt it was 30-40nimutes since Sheriff arrived and till last member safely arrived back.
    We did briefing after everything settled. Coaches made it clear that the choice of venue was wrong and should have consider safety first and fun factor next.
    They did praised us for not panicking, actively involving to the work, keeping contact with kayak as much as possible.
    We arrived back to the base camp at 7:00pm.
    ___________________

    What I have been thinking is that, students HAVE TO self assessed their own skill before they take this kind of class. We should not overestimate our own skill. We can’t just say “that looks fun! I do it!”
    BUT, if they don’t have experience in the surf zone, they even don’t know how to self evaluate. Even if with some surf experience, we often overestimate the size of wave we have been. For example, if I say I am good at 3 feet wave, you are not so sure if it is really a 3 feet wave, right? Often it is only 2 feet. And lots of beginners still won’t know the different impact between different waves. “I can roll” might mean just in the calm water and never experienced tumbled in the surf waves. Maybe they never been in the strong surf wave that is strong enough to capsize their kayaks or back surf when they try to punch through. Other word, many don’t know what to expect from unknown condition (that is why I tend to go with baby steps. Heard too many deep trouble stories).

    Maybe coaches have to help them evaluate? Maybe detailed questionnaires can be filled to help us self assess? We had check list this year which was great, but I don’t know if that was enough for this kind of surf class.

    Thank you very much for taking time to hear from us.
    Sincerely
    Setsuko Cox
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

  44. thank you, Setsuko.

  45. I am very impressed with all the people involved in this incident and their willingness to discuss things honestly and candidly. I have spent a lot of time reading the report and responses and think I have learned much – so thank you to all.

    Although, I can only speak to this incident as a student (not in this course), I do have something to say. On the other hand, I certainly do not have the skills to teach anything in the surf zone.

    I have done a few surf courses with different instructors. In my experience the most safety orientated instructors have a 4:1 ratio or less WITH A TWIST! You have a beach buddy at all times. So one person is on the beach watching their buddy surf. This halves the amount of people on the water at one time. This system works great, and if you think about it, you can only surf for so long, especially when you are getting dumped. This way, when you do bail someone is one the beach to help you out and make sure you are really OK (adrenaline is a great mask for injuries – I have paddled with a separated shoulder out of the surf zone before knowing something was wrong). If someone gets caught in a rip current, the beach buddy can summons help too via voice, whistle or radio.

    To me a course is just that – an opportunity to try something new, or push personal boundaries in a safer environment. I don’t mind if a course leaves me wanting more, or wishing I had more time; that is a positive expereince in my opinion. Once my skills build, I can surf with another in my zone of confidence for as long as I want to.

    Thank you again for all the great hindsight and engagement.

  46. Hi Mark,

    Today I learned about the incident. Thanks for writing and sharing your detailed account.

    When you write about “I had never been in this kind of large, heavy and unfriendly surf for so long before…” it will be near impossible for any paddler not even remotely familiar with Pacific Northwest surf to really understand the conditions that you stayed in your kayak and thinking clearly and persevering. These conditions are something that could never (safely) be trained in.

    Collecting and evaluating all the reports from the ones involved will get a ‘chain of events’ and a ‘lessons learned’, and from my distant perspective all your observations are solid.

    As you already observed, this all started before driving out to the coast. We (still) can learn from it massively and of our inevitable ‘limitations’ in these kind of environments when events unfold.

    Axel

  47. Given the facts offered it seems pretty clear this group should never have gotten off the beach. I wonder how much of this avoidance of proper decision making is driven by economics. If there is no paddling in the surf 16 customers would have needed to be recompensed.

    Another point that seems to be missing is the instructor/leader’s familiarity with a place where they are taking 16 paying customers who must be assumed to not have experience. Does it not make sense for the instructors to have tried it out first? Time spent doing reconnaissance is never wasted.

    That bad feeling mentioned early on in the article would have gotten worse had anyone suffered injury worse than hypothermia.

    I recognize that it is too easy for me criticize even if I wasn’t there.

  48. Hi Ken,

    I know your comments were well intentioned, but I have to tell you that you are way, way off.

    I am not an instructor and have zero professional interest in Alder Creek nor in Lumpy Waters. I have been a customer to both however and I can tell you that financial considerations would not have entered into the process at all.

    Lumpy and Alder Creek are staffed by some of the most conscience and professional folks around. Lumpy water is, if anything, under-priced, many symposiums charge quite a bit more -that’s for sure.

    If anything, the fault was in wanting to give too much to us. I would wager there is not one student who would have grumbled had the decision to move been made to move, nor demanded a refund.

    No one who knows the event and personalities involved would read these blog comments as anything more than thoughtful discussion based on respect, honor and friendship.

    Paul

  49. Hi

    This event has triggered an interesting and useful forum discussion on “Westcoastpaddler”. You have already had a couple of WCPers commenting here, and in fact one of the WCPers was on this course and involved in the event.

  50. Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out.

    One thing I want to clear up, though. When I say that we should not have taken this class to this venue at this tide, I received a few comments about how risk is inherent in any outdoor activity like this, and you can’t just “not go” paddling, or that not using this venue would have meant canceling the class.

    This is not the point I was trying to make. Yes, we could have easily had troubles and we certainly would have had people out of their kayaks no matter what venue we chose that day. The difference, and the problem with this particular venue on that day is the whole issue of when the inevitable “multiple paddlers out of their boats” problem does occur, then what happens? Where do people end up? What is the backup plan?

    This venue did not present a good solution or clear answer to that question, whereas other venues that day would have had better results in case of multiple wet exits.

    I’ve never taught a kayak surfing class that did not include people exiting their boats, sometimes several at a time. This venue was not forgiving of that situation at all.

  51. I also want to second Paul’s comments – having spent a fair amount of time with folks from Alder Creek, it’s clear that they take safety seriously. On top of that, for this class, a different venue wouldn’t have meant refunding students so they weren’t facing a financial loss.

    I also wanted to clarify a couple of my comments. I didn’t mean to suggest that mistakes weren’t made – clearly they were – or that kayaking is inherently dangerous. I’ll start with the second one: With roughly 1/3rd of Americans losing roughly 1/3rd of their life expectancy due to obesity related health problems, as a group we lose more years of life to things we don’t do than to participating in ‘dangerous’ activities. Are there dangers in kayaking? Sure. There are also dangers in crossing the street and taking a shower, but few people would list these as ‘dangerous’ activities.

    One minimizes real risk by assessing danger and taking appropriate precautions, but human nature often gets in the way of that assessment. In this case, it sounds like several issues contributed to a situation where none of the folks who had reservations felt like they should speak up. Social scientists have shown in a variety of experiments that people tend not to voice reservations, respond to risks, take precautions or object under a variety of circumstances. In this case, several known factors contributed. Feeling rushed or like others are waiting reduces the odds that anyone will alter the current plan. Groups and authority figures virtually eliminate the odds of anyone speaking up. Shared responsibility is also an issue. And, of course, saving face doesn’t help.

    What I was trying to get at in my initial comment was something else, though. It’s very easy to feel overconfident when one reads the lessons others have learned – One can then point to the things one isn’t doing and fail to see other real dangers. It’s also easy to look at an analysis like what you’ve provided and believe (often incredibly unrealistically) that one would have behaved differently in the same situation. Preventing a future problem in a similar situation isn’t as easy as: 1) don’t unload your boat until after the safety speech; 2) listen to your misgivings; 3) don’t lead trips you didn’t plan; and 4) test everyone’s drysuit for leaks. It’s far more complicated than that. A wide range of factors contributed to this situation and the exact set is unlikely to reoccur the same way again. So fellow readers, don’t get smug. And trip leaders, learn from your mistakes, but don’t beat yourselves up too much…

  52. John Schlesinger

    Just got back to this and read some more comments after mine. The radio issue has been discussed but want to reaffirm what happened with me and my not having a radio. I had specially asked Sean about taking the radio and he had suggested to leave it behind. I am not saying this as a negative statement about Sean. But for me in the future I will just take a radio. I did take a class with Sean the next day and will, I am sure be in a class with Sean again.

    I’ll also second third whatever, back up Paul’s comments on the Integrity of both Alder Creek and Lumpy Waters. I have learned a lot being at Lumpy waters and will be back again.

    We have all learned from this incident and will all be better and more aware of the waters we paddle on and the people we paddle with. Group awarness and individual abilities need to be monitored by all of us. Be ready to speak up if we see any problems in a kind and non aggressive manner.

    Hope to see all again at Lumpy and other places of paddling fun.

  53. Mark ,Sean, and participants, glad everyone was ok and lessons learned. One golden rule that I never cross in my 22 years of instructing paddling is I never personally coach anyone at a location I have no prior paddling experience ( if I’m at a new teaching venue I’ll show up a day early and gather local knowledge and paddle a few spots). Rely on your gut feeling. We have outstanding kayak coaches in the Pacific Northwest, including yourself and Sean. Shit happens, we learn and grow from it, and I know our paddling community commends your actions and recognizes without yours and Seans expertise out there, emergency situations spiral way out of control- but everyone pitched in and helped one another out!. I majored in risk mgmt at university and commend the instructors for staying cool headed. I’ll work and paddle and teach with you both anytime.

  54. Here is a copy of the incident report I have provided to the organisers of the Lumpy Waters Symposium. I have been wondering what is the best way to share this to enable the maximum learning and it seems to me that Mark’s blog is probably the best forum at this point in time so here it is:

    Netarts Bay Incident Report By Sean Morley

    Friday October 14th 2011

    My day began with a short-boat surf at Pacific City. On reflection that time would have been better spent checking possible locations for the afternoon class.

    The instructor meeting started at 12.00pm Paul Kuthe welcomed us and introduced himself as the Safety Officer. We were shown potential locations for classes using Google Earth. Happy Camp at the entrance to Netarts Bay was discussed as an option. No mention was made of the dangers of this location on an ebb tide, although this should have been obvious to all. Charts and satellite photographs were available for each group in the club house.

    I had been designated as one of two ‘Lead’ instructors (the other being Mark Whittaker) for an Advanced Long Boat Surfing Class. My assistant was Jamie Klein, Mark’s assist was Richard Davis. I had not met Mark before but have paddled with both Jamie and Richard before. I knew them to be very strong and skilled paddlers. I was aware that Jamie did not have that much teaching experience on the ocean.

    In making the suggestion to go to Happy Camp I was mindful that the main beach at Pacific City would be crowded with other classes and board surfers. I was also eager to find a location where it would be possible to find long surf rides so that my students would have time on the wave to develop their surfing skills. The surf at Pacific City tends to be dumping but the entrance to Netarts Bay at Happy Camp seemed to have the potential for longer surf rides. I had not been to the location before and I underestimated the obvious risks presented by what would become an ebbing tide. In my mind I was thinking that we could use the ebbing tide as a conveyor belt to assist students to get back out quickly. I knew that I would need to control the group carefully but since this was supposed to be an ‘advanced’ class I felt that the students should have the required skills. Indeed I had taught several of the students before and knew them to be competent paddlers. I knew Jamie to be effective in assisted rescues and I felt we could quickly rescue anyone who capsized and came out of their boat. I did not fully consider the potential for multiple capsizes at the same time. I prioritized the desire for long surf rides above safety and this was a fundamental and basic error that ultimately led to the incident that unfolded.

    I spoke with Richard who I knew had the most local knowledge amongst the four instructors. He liked the idea of going to Happy Camp and so I made this suggestion to Mark. Mark seemed to be happy with the idea and did not express any concerns at that time. It was only once we had returned from the incident that I became aware that he had had concerns about the choice of location. The one individual that did offer me advice was John Walpole. I had not met John before and did not appreciate that he has considerable sea kayaking experience. Whilst I did listen carefully to the information he gave me about the tidal currents and sandbanks at Happy Camp, had I known him better I might have read between the lines of what he was telling me and understood that he was really trying to tell me not to go there. Likewise if John had known me better he might have felt more comfortable about telling me that Happy Camp was a bad idea on the ebb.

    I do not recall specifically informing Paul Kuthe that we were intending to go to Happy Camp. Myself or Mark should have done so and perhaps Paul should have asked where we were planning to go. I think he became aware but that might have been after we had left the main venue. The start of an event like this is always a little chaotic and there needs to be a check made of where each class is planning to locate.

    Once we had met with the students we informed them that we were going to Happy Camp. One of the students knew of the location although he not paddled there. He was eager to get going so I allowed him to go ahead and to meet us there. This was a mistake.
    Once we had ensured everyone had a ride and had their boats loaded, we left the main venue and headed north. We drove past McPhillips Beach and the surf looked ideal for our class. Because I had let the student go ahead we were unable to change plans at that time.

    The drive took approximately 45 minutes so by the time we got there and got unloaded and changed it was 2pm and the tide was already starting to ebb. The surf looked very manageable from the car park at Happy Camp. However it was impossible to accurately assess the size of the surf outside the entrance to Netarts Bay. I had a brief discussion with Mark and we agreed that the conditions from the car park looked reasonable. I suggested that Mark’s group work on the inside and I offered to take my group outside. We designated a point to act as a boundary between the two groups.

    We conducted a roll call using the yellow roster sheet and we then split into our two groups and began our lessons. Someone (Fred or Jamie) left the yellow roster sheet under the windscreen wiper of my truck where it could easily be accessed. I foolishly left my VHF radio in my truck. I would not normally carry a VHF radio during a surf class but this was not a usual location for a surf class and I should have been wearing it and arranged to communicate with Jamie, Mark and Richard on Channel 69 if it became necessary. One of my students asked if he should bring his radio. I suggested he keep his decks as clean as possible. This was bad advice.

    I spent approximately 20 to 30 minutes on the beach with my group discussing our experience, objectives for the class and safety issues, including the risks associated with surfing during an ebb tide. We discussed the strategy for managing the group. I asked Jamie to be the outside marker and told the group to utilize the ebb current in the channel to paddle out and turn around once they got to Jamie. I warned them about straying too far from the deep water channel into the break zone and encouraged them to surf left into deep water where the waves would be spilling rather than right to where the waves would be more dumping. Of course this all relied on them having the skills to be able to control their kayaks and we spent some time discussing stern rudders as a means to keeping the kayak straight and strategies for turning when surfing on a wave.

    Before launching I asked everyone in the group if they felt comfortable paddling out to the entrance. (I did NOT ask if anyone was “too scared” as has been alleged). I stated it was possible for anyone who did not want to go outside to join the group on the inside. Everyone appeared eager to go outside but in retrospect I could have asked this sooner or in such a way that it would have been easier for a student to opt to stay inside.

    I assisted everyone in launching. I like to do this so that I can ensure no-one is over anxious and I can check things like hatch covers. The downside to this strategy was that I was the last to launch and the group was already starting to paddle out towards the mouth. At that point I felt able to catch up with everyone before they reached the surf break but then one of my students stated he had an issue with a foot peg. Once I had assisted him with this I looked up and saw that my group had not waited for me but had paddled straight out and into the break zone. I was annoyed with myself because I knew I should have specifically told Jamie to keep the group together and wait for me before entering the break zone. I knew that we needed to asses the conditions at the mouth of the bay before getting involved in the surf break but I had not explained this to Jamie and given him this specific instruction.

    As I finally caught up with the majority of the group I was alarmed to see Jamie surfing a large wave in which did not comply with my instruction to him to act as the outside marker. Instead of the group keeping close to the deepwater channel several had gone deep into the break zone and in a very short period of time a large set came through which caused multiple capsizes. Several students performed successful Eskimo rolls but one student, Shay, came out of her boat. I performed an assisted rescue on her and successfully put her back in her boat but during this time it was apparent that others had capsized and were also swimming. I was aware that conditions were too big for the ability of the group and at this point I should have used my whistle to attract everyone’s attention and direct them back to the beach. Unfortunately the group was already too split up to make this possible. I told each student I encountered to head into the beach. I was aware that some were finding it extremely difficult to control their kayaks and stay upright. I was also aware that some of Mark’s group had strayed out into the zone where we should have been working and they were also struggling to stay upright in the surf.

    I then spent the next two hours performing rescue after rescue of boats and people, desperately trying to keep track of the group. The details of these two hours are somewhat vague. Whilst reuniting Steve, one of Mark’s students with his kayak I was aware of another one of Mark’s students David, who had capsized and was out of his boat and who had drifted well outside the mouth of the bay. Thankfully he was holding his paddle vertically so I was able to keep track of his whereabouts. Once I had put Steve back in his kayak I paddled out to Dave, put him back in his kayak and coached him back in through the surf. As I brought him in I was aware of two of my students, Shay whom I had rescued earlier and Donna who were both in the water without their kayaks. Jamie was working with Shay and had managed to put her on his back deck. He seemed to be making very little progress inshore. Shay was quite distressed and complained of being cold. The dry suit she was borrowing was leaking.

    In my group I had Fred, a professional photographer. He was proving to be a very competent rough water paddler and was a huge help performing several rescues and tows. I was concerned that Shay was in the early stages of hypothermia and might not be able to hang on to Jamie’s kayak for much longer. I am unclear exactly when I did this but at some point in time I asked Fred to paddle in to the beach and call the Coastguard. I asked him to make a specific request for a jet-ski as I felt this was likely to be the quickest and most effective way to get Shay ashore and out of the water.

    I went to the aid of Donna who was swimming with her paddle. She did not appear to be at all distressed but there was no sign of her boat. I saw Shay’s boat and towed it towards Donna in the hope that she would be able to paddle it into the beach. Unfortunately Shay’s kayak was a low volume kayak and Donna was unable to fit inside it.

    As I was attempting to put Donna into Shay’s kayak a large wave swept over our heads ‘log rolling’ us several times. In the process I lost my paddle, which had been tucked under the front of my lifejacket. I was unable to reach my spare located on my front deck and I had run out of air after the long tumble ride. I was unable to hand roll on my first attempt so I did a wet exit. When I surfaced another large set wave took my boat away from me. I saw mine and Donna’s paddles nearby and used my short tow to secure them and then started swimming after Shay’s kayak which was swamped but floating about 100 yards away. Donna was also nearby and I told her to try to stay with me. After a long swim I caught up with Shay’s kayak and did a cowboy scramble into it. I noted the boat was holed through the hull near the day hatch, the cover of which was missing. The other hatches were secure so the kayak remained floating. I paddled over to Donna and provided her with support until we were joined by Richard Davis who was able to give her a back-deck carry to the south side of the bay entrance and a large sand spit that had become exposed as the tide had dropped.

    I then paddled Shay’s flooded kayak across to the north side of the estuary where I found Mark towing my kayak and Jamie still carrying Shay on his back deck. I asked Mark to go into the beach and start rounding up everyone. I transferred from Shay’s boat to mine and then hooked up to Jamie’s kayak and attempted to tow him and Shay towards the north side of the estuary. By this time I was aware of emergency vehicles on the beach. I had no idea if we had accounted for all of our students and was very anxious that we could have missed a capsized student who could have been swept out to sea.

    Using ranges it became apparent that even though we were paddling north across the current and not directly into the estuary we were not moving and were effectively on a treadmill. I told Jamie to turn and paddle south and it soon became apparent that we were now moving very quickly southwards. We were still a fair distance offshore and outside of all but the largest breaking waves. I was extremely relieved when I saw two jet skis approaching from the direction of Netart’s Bay. Whilst I was now confident that we could make it to shore I was not at all confident that Shay would be able to hang on through the surf zone. We transferred Shay to the jet-ski which was a very quick and easy process. I then asked Jamie to head back to the north side of the estuary and rejoin the group. I paddled over to the south side and the sand spit where Richard was waiting with Donna. I waved down the other jet-ski which carried Donna across the estuary and back to the group. I then paddled across the estuary with Richard. As we did so I observed a Coastguard helicopter circling and was concerned that they had located another member of our group. I could also see two Coastguard vessels offshore. I was surprised by the strength of the ebb current and specifically how close to the northern shore the current was flowing. I would estimate the current at that time at approximately six knots within less than 50 feet of the beach.

    I landed and ensured that the group was in possession of the yellow roster sheet and then I checked off everyone’s names. It was only at that time that I knew that everyone was accounted for. I liaised with the Sheriff and Coastguard and confirmed that we were all ashore. I gave them details of Shay’s kayak that was still missing. Donna’s had been recovered. Paul Kuthe arrived shortly afterwards. Once the authorities had all the information they needed we worked as a team to get all the kayaks carried back to the Happy Camp car park.

    I checked on Shay and Donna who were being treated for hypothermia in ambulances and then I conducted a class debrief of the group except for Shay who was taken back to the main venue by Paul Kuthe.

    In summary I wish to make the following observations and recommendations:

    1. More specific advice/recommendations on suitable locations should be given by the symposium organizers to each class’s Lead and Assistant instructor(s), particularly if these instructors are not from the local area. Having an earlier meeting either on Thursday night or Friday morning would help with this by giving more time for decision making and possible reconnoiter by those unfamiliar with the area.
    2. Lead instructors MUST inform the Safety Officer of the launch and final destination of their class.
    3. When it is necessary to drive to a location, the Lead instructor(s) should lead the convoy and no student should be allowed to go ahead on their own.
    4. Tidal CURRENT information should be provided for each location where appropriate and available.
    5. No class should be conducted in a bay entrance or mouth of a river estuary during the ebb.
    6. VHF radios should be compulsory on-water equipment for ALL instructors.
    7. Short tows of less than ten feet are dangerous and ineffective in surf conditions. Long tow lines are also difficult to control and a tow line of around 15 to 20 feet would appear to be most useful, although towing in surf is not desirable, can be very challenging and potentially dangerous.
    8. When conducting an Assisted Rescue in surf, if keep your paddle tucked under your lifejacket you are likely to lose it during a capsize. It may be preferable to stow your paddle under bungy lines. Had mine been secured under the bungy I would likely have been able to roll even if it had become twisted. I shall also be experimenting with a paddle karabiner attached to a quick release loop on my lifejacket.
    9. An ‘Advanced Class’ should not be scheduled on the first day of a kayak symposium.
    10. An instructor’s reputation should never be used by the symposium organizers or other instructors to judge his or her ability to make good decisions.
    11. All Lead and Assistant Instructors need to be actively involved in decision making with regard to location and given the ‘power of veto’.
    12. Both Lead and Assistant Instructors should be qualified, experienced and competent to lead in the environment they are teaching in.
    13. All symposium attendees should be encouraged to feel empowered to express concerns about any aspects of safety.
    14. Final head counts should be conducted out loud so that everyone in the group is aware of the size of the group.
    15. When asking students if they feel able to deal with the prevailing conditions it should be done in such a way as to make it easy for them to opt out and there should be an alternative activity available. I very much like the method that has been previously described by Mark (closing eyes and raising fingers 1-5) and will be experimenting with it. The bottom line is, if I have to ask the question, we probably shouldn’t be doing it.

    Finally, I am determined to not become over cautious as a result of this incident but I have made it my mission to be a safer, more effective and more professional instructor and not rely so much on my own personal skills to get me or others out of trouble.

    Sean Morley
    10/29/11

  55. thanks, Sean.

  56. This is the most informative, enlightening, educational and respectful discussion on kayaking I’ve had the pleasure to read. Kudos to all involved for letting us learn from the Lumpy Waters incident.

  57. Heartfelt thanks to all the participants for posting their perspectives on this incident. I’m sure every Kayaker, of whatever level of ability would benefit from more reports like this.

    Props to Sean for leaving ego at the door, owning up to personal mistakes made and (I’m absolutely positive) becoming a better coach for it. To be perfectly honest I’d be more comfortable being led by someone who had an incident like this in their past that someone who hasn’t been tested yet. When the chips were down both coaches rose to the occasion and didn’t back down until all their wards were safely ashore.

    Any slaps on wrists for mistakes made, poor judgement calls and the like take a back seat in my opinion to their willingness to clean up their own mess. Accidents happen – it’s how we deal with them that we ought to be judged on.

  58. Hi Mark, and all..

    As a relatively new, and perhaps somewhat ambitious kayaker, I have read these posts with great interest. Thank you for being a great example for the rest of us – and for providing an incredible textbook piece in kayak safety…

    Becoming an instructor is part of my aspirations, and this is a lesson, that I hope I will never forget.

    Thanks again
    Ulrik Schou
    Denmark.

  59. Hello all. This got me thinking so I posted some thoughts related to risk management at symposiums in general. You are welcome to stop my and comment.

    http://www.paddlinginstructor.com/general-news/paddling-symposiums-and-risk-management-a-few-thoughts-4384.html

    Cheers,

    David Johnston
    PaddlingInstructor.com

  60. Thanks, David, those are some excellent ideas.

  61. Michael H. Morris

    Mark and all, well done and thank you for this forum. I have not read your “ECO chicks trip” report but sometimes it’s necessary to repeat a “never again” lesson a couple times before it really sinks in. We get complacent. Following the gut is a good rule. I was given some not so subtle hints this season and am now re-habbing a blown shoulder.
    There are lessons to be learned for instructees here too. Pay attention to the trip leaders instructions and follow them. Do not go paddling off ahead of the group or instructors, stay withing contact range. Stay aware of what’s going on, keep your own head counts, observe if others are in trouble, know where you are. When things are looking a little mayhemish, back-off, re-group, assess, find the leader and make sure everything is under reasonable control. And of course, the aforementioned, speak up if you have doubts.
    Happy Paddling,
    Michael H. Morris

  62. From how it is described, I would guess it was more like a ‘Day 2′ to an intro course to sea kayaking and not an ‘Advanced Course’ as Sean describes. It specifically states ‘an introduction to surfing waves in a seak kayak’.

    Here is the course description:

    “Long Boat Surfing Skills
    Once comfortable with basic surf zone operation it’s time to surf! This class emphasizes how to select a break, position yourself to catch waves, and enjoy the ride. This class is an introduction to surfing waves in a sea kayak. We will be practicing the use of surf etiquette, spacing, and group management while playing in the surf. Learn to prevent and control broaching, side surfing, and even back surfing. This class is fun for students that already know how to brace and control their boats reasonably well and have either a roll or can self rescue by swimming their boat in through the surf after a capsize. Fear to Fun in the surf is a great class to take before joining Long Boat Surf Skills.”

    I saw a whole range of skill sets that day among the students. I think some more clarity in the course descriptions might be worth reviewing for future symposiums.

  63. I had a discussion the next day with John Walpole regarding the incident. He has a vast amount of local knowledge and stated clearly regarding the Netarts outlet, “on an ebb, there is very little chance for a self rescue”.

    I became a little frustrated in hearing that the coaches were informed of this prior to the incident, but chose to weigh these words because of a lack of familiarity with John.

    Who is John Walpole? He is listed right on the Lumpy Waters website on the event instructors page: http://www.lumpywaters.com/instructors-c7.html He is also sponsored by NDK: http://www.seakayakinguk.com/action/?mode=paddlers&item=15

    I do appreciate Sean owning up to this.

  64. Hi Mark,

    I’ve just finishing reading your report – thank-you.

    As paddlesport professionals these incidents do happen, because of the dynamic nature of the sea, not the efforts of the paddler. Decisions are unfortunately static by their nature… the two dynamics don’t mix. Such is the work we do – walking an invisible, and ever shifting line. Experience helps but what matters most, even more than the final outcome, is your commitment to your group. You should be proud of your work. You came through it a better seasoned, more experienced, and stronger, group leader.

    Best of paddling my friend,
    ~Daniel~

  65. Peter, I also spoke with Jon Walpole right after this event, and he said that he had indeed spoken with Sean about the risks of Netarts on an ebb, but was regretful that he did not come right out and directly say to Sean, “no, don’t go there.” I’m not sure where you got the idea that all the coaches of this class were told by John, “on an ebb, there is very little chance for a self rescue”, but chose to ignore it. I know John, and had I had a chance to run into him before this class, and had he told me that Netarts was a bad idea, I certainly would have sat up and taken notice. I certainly did not choose “to weigh these words because of a lack of familiarity with John.”

    All of that being said, as coaches and experienced paddlers, we should have already known this, just based on the chart and the tide book, or at least been able to make a pretty educated guess that this could easily go very wrong. The one person of the four coaches who DID have experience with this venue is the one who suggested it as a good place to go.

  66. This blog entry and the discussion that followed is a great service to the sea kayaking community. Thanks to all who contributed but Mark and Sean in particular!

    One thing that strikes me in one comment after another is the focus on the physical environment. It has been mentioned in a few posts, but in this specific instance, it sounds like it was not so much the assessment of the conditions but that of the participants that resulted in the drama.

    There does not seem to be anything inherently wrong with this particular location–it offers a free ride out through the surf and the rides seem to be longer than at other places along the shore. The risk of being swept out to sea was not a surprise that caught the class unprepared. As long as the paddlers are dressed for the water temperature and can re-enter the boat within the time window before incapacitation due to hypothermia, it’s a very manageable risk.

    Most of the participants in the class did capsize. Most people in any surf zone do! Sounds like this fact was factored into the risk assessment. It was only a few that were not equipped to deal with the challenges of self-rescuing or even utilize the assisted rescue. Sounds like insufficient physical conditioning before hypothermia could have been a major factor. It is quite possible that the single largest failure in the risk assessment on that day was the substandard drysuit which left a participant hypothermic and certainly played a major role in the loss of her boat. This one person, then, took the efforts of multiple people and the group as whole got scattered.

    Could this whole scenario been prevented by not going to the mouth of the river? Most likely, yes. But advanced symposiums exist for the purpose of pushing the envelope in the first place, don’t they?

  67. Thanks for that detailed and dispassionate account, it’s very informative.

  68. I’d like to thank Mark and Sean for being so open in discussing this incident. Its not an easy thing to do, but the community as a whole can benefit greatly, especially if the right conclusions are drawn. I don’t think there is a lot more to be said here, but I would like to clarify a couple of points that have been raised in some of the comments above.

    First, regarding the question of information sharing ahead of time, Paul Kuthe did mention at the coaches meeting earlier in the day that we would have an ebbing tide all afternoon. He also discussed possible venues for the Symposium as a whole using Google Maps and a projector to share with the group. When Netarts Bay was discussed I stood up, walked over to the screen and explained that at the forecast swell height and direction we would have a closeout break across the mouth of the bay.

    I’m not sure who was actually present at that meeting, but all the coaches were supposed to be there. I do not know if any of the coaches involved in the incident heard what I had to say, but all the information about tides, weather and surf was readily available.

    Prior to the groups departing I was standing outside talking with Sean Morley and Jeff Laxier. Jeff was taking over my rough water rescues class because I was injured and did not think it was appropriate for me to be leading a group in my condition. Jeff and I were talking about possible venues for that class. Jeff was wondering about Netarts or maybe the Mouth of the Salmon River. Sean said that his group was thinking about going to Netarts (I believe at the suggestion of the local expert who had been assigned to that group).

    I pointed out that it was a large tidal exchange, that it was ebbing all afternoon (the entire duration of the class), and that there would be a closeout surf break across the mouth of the bay. Jeff said, and I quote, “I want no part of that!” and elected to go to the beach at Pacific City (which had no ebbing current). Sean half-joked “Do you have ANY good news?”. We talked some more, and I suggested he look at an alternate venue north of Cape Kiwanda. Apparently, he did check out this venue, and liked it, but by then others in the group had gone on ahead to Netarts Bay.

    As has been mentioned several times in the comments, I did not tell Sean “Do not go there!”. I regret this. After hearing about the incident the next day I apologized for not doing so. However, at the time I felt that given the information I was sharing with him it was clear that I would not go there (and clearly Jeff wouldn’t because he said so). Basically, I assumed Sean would interpret the tidal and swell information the same way Jeff and I did. When I apologized the next day to Sean he said that in retrospect he realized that I was in fact saying “do not go there”. The lesson I take away from this is that I need to continue to be as blunt and outspoken as I usually am. I was making an effort to be polite, in part because it was the first time I’d met Sean and being a fan of his great paddling accomplishments I felt quite honored to meet him, and in part because it was my first time coaching at Lumpy Waters and I felt I had been asked to make a special effort to be extra nice to people. ;)

    However, I think there is more to it than that. Should I have told Sean, in plain and simple terms, to not go there? In retrospect I feel I should have been much more blunt about it. Should he have known not to go there? I think so. Should he have listened to me because I’m a local expert? And how much local knowledge is required anyway? In my opinion, local knowledge really has nothing to do with this particular incident. Elementary knowledge of tides, surf and nautical charts is enough to predict the conditions encountered during this incident. And very little about this is peculiar to Netart’s Bay per se. The same kind of thing happens at the mouth of bays all over the world during an ebb into a big surf break.

    So I think what the sea kayaking community should really be interested in is the question of how experienced sea kayakers can fail to interpret this kind of information appropriately. Now I don’t mean to single out Sean here, nor the other coaches. Clearly I’m not happy about the incident itself, and I know they are not either, but I have been very impressed with the way they have reacted post-incident! This has been out of the ordinary. However, even so, I still can’t help feeling frustrated about it.

    The reason for my frustration is that I have had essentially the same discussion about the same conditions on numerous occasions in the past both before and after incidents – including some at Netarts Bay! In my experience, it is common practice for sea kayakers (including many certified instructors/coaches) to either not understand or not appropriately factor in tidal, weather and sea conditions into their decision making. I know that is a sweeping statement that may offend some people, but I make it because I believe this is the root cause of this incident (and most other sea kayaking incidents). This should be the main focus of discussion!

    Before closing I also wanted to briefly respond to a couple of the comments that either talked of the fear of getting swept out to sea, or the safety of letting the ebb current carry everyone out to calm water where deep water rescues would be easy. The key thing to realize here is that the ebbing current carries you out only so far before it weakens. At this swell height powerful surf pushes you back into the ebbing current and you essentially have a “keeper” type situation where its hard to get out through the impact zone, hard to get in against the current, and hard to do anything staying where you are! In short, once you get yourself in this situation there are no easy outs. Its a nightmare! The guys leading this group are some of the most skilled sea paddlers anywhere, and even they didn’t have the skills to get everyone out safely, so clearly its not a question of skills. Its a question of decision making earlier. Fortunately, this incident happened during nice weather and relatively calm seas for the Oregon coast. In more normal conditions it could easily have lead to multiple fatalities.

  69. Thanks for weighing in, Jonathon.

  70. Jonathan,

    Your expression of frustration has me wondering if this incident arose as the result of some systemic issue(s). That is, my interpretation of your comments is that your real frustration isn’t with this incident per se, rather with the fact that this incident is not an isolated circumstance. Note I’m not trying to put words in your mouth so please disabuse me of any misinterpretation, however accepting my interpretation as reasonable I have a question or two then.

    For the purposes of this specific argument I’ll call the root cause of the incident a blunder in the chess sense. In chess blunders are made by virtually all players regardless of competency. Grand Masters, patzers, everyone blunders, albeit at different frequencies. Nevertheless, play chess => blunder. Do you suppose it’s the case that the same is true for coaching/instructing? That is, coach => blunder?

    And, to be clear, I give blunder to mean an error which requires intervention of an outside source (e.g. Coast Guard) to resolve. Not like, say, forgetting to bring a hot drink on a cold day or losing sight of a student for a minute.

    I ask mainly because I do tend to believe there are systemic issues with much of (this is imprecise, sorry) the instructor training in, at least, my area of the world. I wonder though if my perspective isn’t too parochial. Do you know of a system or mechanism or whatever in/through/by which blunders do not occur or at a significantly lower frequency?

    Apologies in advance if this is the wrong place for a discussion.

  71. Rick, yes, I do believe that the incident arose largely as a result of systemic issues that need to be addressed. Part of the problem, I think, arises from woefully inadequate training and certification requirements in the areas of seamanship and navigation. Another part of the problem arises from the growing tendency in our community to take a “park-and-play” mindset onto the sea. And part comes from a general lack of recognition in the community of the importance of good seamanship and navigation, or even a recognition of what that is. In particular, there is a lopsided and inappropriate weighting of the importance of paddling skills vs knowledge of the environment we operate in. All of these issues are very serious concerns for me. I could speak at length about them, but this might not be the place for that.

    I certainly did not intend my statements about frustration to be interpreted as personal criticism of the individuals involved. I had, and still have, a high degree of respect for these people. They are hugely committed to the sport and are doing a commendable job of trying to do the right thing. I view them as friends and I hope my comments are interpreted as a positive and genuine attempt to be constructive.

    Regarding my statements about community interest in seamanship and navigation, you might find the following an interesting piece of anecdotal evidence. The incident occurred on the first day of the Lumpy Waters Symposium. After the second day several people were quite tired and were considering staying off the water on the last day. Paul Kuthe (event organizer) asked me if I would be willing to teach a classroom session on navigation and seamanship on the last day. I agreed and prepared some material Saturday night. Sunday morning when people signed up for classes, not a single person (of the 100 or so participants) was interested in the navigation & seamanship class. So even in the immediate aftermath of an incident like this nobody was interested in acquiring the kind of knowledge that would have averted it. This is symptomatic of the problem we face.

  72. I was pretty surprised to see that about the Nav and Seamanship class, too, Jon.

    I think that a part of the problem here is also very much connected to the “symposium mindset” that David Johnston alluded to above. His link is well worth reading.

  73. Actually, I wasn’t surprised at all that nobody signed up for the class. I expected it, in fact. I think the community mindset in general, and the focus of this symposium in particular, was all about having fun in the waves. I think thats why most people signed up for the symposium in the first place – you could have fun in the waves – no experience necessary.

    This is related to the symposium mindset David wrote about in the sense that when we coaches work at home with our own long term students we make sure they learn the things they need to know in the right order. In many cases this is enforced through formal prerequisites as part of a more systematic approach to long term learning. All that goes out the window in the typical Symposium setting, and from that point on there is relatively little that can be done to effectively manage safety for classes in conditions.

  74. I am glad to hear that everyone was safe at the end of the day.

    Could part of the problem be that many of us kayaking students often overstate our abilities and sign-up for classes and trips that we do not necessarily have the water know-how, paddling skill-set, fitness, swimming ability and guts to cope with ?

    Just my 2 cents.

  75. In reply to Mick, yes, people do tend to radically overstate their abilities. In my experience (as a former ACA and current BCU coach and assessor), students are incapable of self-assessing in any meaningful way. This is a universal problem that it is well-known and well documented. So it is unreasonable for a coach/instructor/leader/organizer to base safety-related decisions on such information. Unfortunately, doing so tends to be common practice in paddle sports. This is a mistake.

    The only solutions to this problem, that I am aware of, are to either assess all students at the start of every class, and then target the class to the weakest students, or to operate within a well-defined, assessment-based system, in which qualified assessors evaluate students, and in which there is a serious attempt to maintain uniformity of standards across assessors. With this kind of system assessments are meaningful. Therefore, students who have been assessed to a certain level can show up at a symposium and can join classes at the appropriate level. Coaches leading such classes have a known quantity to work with and so can do a much better job of targeting classes to well prepared students. This is the only way I know of to teach advanced classes in conditions safely. Not only is safety managed properly but it promotes a much better learning environment.

    However, in this particular incident I don’t think it was the root cause of the problem. They just went to the wrong place at the wrong time, regardless of the students involved.

  76. Mark,

    Wow, what a write up and wild ride and I honestly think you have one of the best blogs going. I read a lot of them, follow a lot and want to say thanks for taking the time you do to put yours together. (Man I want a tractor like that!!!)
    Great information and photos though I will ask that you get a new Pentax as soon as possible as I have seen enough of the iPhone photos to last a lifetime. Hell, I’ll pitch in a few bucks to help enable you to purchase a new Optio! Just send me a PO box to send the cash to!

    Anyway thanks again for a great blog and I look forward to reading more about your adventures.

    Billy Kroll
    pacificcoastkayaker@gmail.com

    p.s. You don’t have a guest house you rent out allowing you to give one on one lessons do you? I’ve always wanted to paddle waters north of California but don’t know anyone “up there”!

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