Milnerton to Melkbos Meltdown

13 years 3 months ago - 13 years 3 months ago #6232 by jtresfon
Saturday past heralded the second race of the Cape Downwind Series. Looking at Buoyweather the day before it promised to be a good one with some strong SE winds predicted. Just being able to get there was a story in its own right, seeing as my wife had just given birth to our son the day before and my pink ticket status was not looking good. At the last minute on the morning of the race Granny offered to babysit our two daughters and gave me the gap to do the race. Arriving at Milnerton the wind was shunting and the conditions were looking wild and even a little scary. There were many familiar faces in the crowd which boasted the who's who of the Cape's most seasoned downwind paddlers. These conditions were definitely not for the inexperienced or those not familiar with extreme downwind conditions. Even given the depth of talent present there were still more than a few nervous faces in the crowd as everyone gathered for the briefing. Richie Kohler struggled to get the message across as the wind asserted itself as the dominant force in nature's weather arsenal. We all struggled to control our boats as we wrestled them down to the water's edge and waited for the start signal.

Then it was go go go… Only 100m from the beach the runs were already fantastic! Whooping with excitement paddlers launched into steep drops and tore off towards Blouberg. I decided to work left and take a deeper line past Blouberg which usually works for me, as then I have a straight run in to Melkbos. This was obviously quite a popular option as I found myself surrounded by a few paddlers. As I worked my way deeper the wind speed increased and the runs were huge. Launching down the face it was a challenge not to bury the nose and to keep momentum going to link with the next run. I am by no means the world's greatest downwind exponent, but am very comfortable in the big stuff having done 30 to 40 Miller's Runs this season alone, most in fairly big conditions. That notwithstanding this was probably some of the strongest downwind conditions I had yet experienced. About 30 minutes into the race I had the thought that although I was having a great race and screaming along, the exhilaration was tinged with trepidation as these were not conditions to be trifled with. I remember telling myself not to cock up and fall in, as it would be difficult to get back in. Scarcely 10 minutes later, about 2km offshore from the Seli1 shipwreck at Blouberg, I caught a monster run and as I went down the face the boat started to broach to the right. I gave full left rudder and with a crunch the rudder pedal snapped clean off under my foot! With total disbelief I thought, "this cannot be happening… I'm having such a great paddle, please not now!" I gave a few seconds consideration to trying to make it all the way to Melkbos but the boat was almost uncontrollable on the runs and with a sigh of resignation I pushed the right pedal to turn towards Blouberg beachfront. With a crack the right pedal snapped off as well leaving my boat completely rudderless, far offshore in a heaving sea with the wind tearing sheets of spray of the surface. Not good!

I thought about phoning the NSRI boat as option 1. The problem with this approach is that it will take them a while to find you and in the mean time hypothermia is a very real danger. And if they don't find you then chances are that you are toast. So option 2 was to try and paddle ashore with option 1 as my reserve plan. The first problem was getting the boat to point in the right direction using only the paddle, and at the same time trying to stay upright. I made slow progress, and saw no other boats in the immediate vicinity. I was covering more ground towards Melkbos than I was towards Blouberg, but the shoreline was getting closer. About 1km from the shore a breaking wave knocked me out of the boat, and thankfully I had both paddle leash and a leash to the boat itself. Getting back in was a challenge as the wind tried to take the boat away from me and my legs were wrapped up in the leash. I eventually managed to untangle myself, turn the boat into the wind and climb back on. Talk about an energy sapping procedure… I made about another 200m before falling off again, and had to start the whole laborious procedure from scratch. This became the pattern for the next 500m as the waves felt the presence of shallow water and started to steepen. Swim, remount, paddle, swim… About 100m from the beach I remounted and paddled up into the wind, and took stock of the situation. I was running out of beach and the shoreline was changing to rocks as I approached the Big Bay area. The shorebreak looked massive from my viewpoint and the thought of trying to get through it with no rudder did not fill me with confidence. By this stage I was very cold, shivering uncontrollably and fairly knackered. I managed to get the boat facing towards the beach and as a big wave rose up behind me I caught it and immediately broached and rolled. The boat came up tight against the leash and I was dragged several metres until I could swim back to the boat. I was about 50m from the beach and gave serious thought to undoing the leash and letting the boat go to its doom on the rocks. I am a fairly good swimmer and together with the fact that I was wearing a PFD I thought I had a good chance of making it ashore swimming by myself. Preventing damage to the boat was the last thing on my mind just then. I draped myself sideways over the boat to catch a breath and just then noticed a paddler on the beach waving his arms frantically to signal something to me. With horror I realized that there was a shallow rocky reef between me and the beach, and the waves were crunching onto the rocks with explosive force. For the first time I was seriously scared and did not rate my chances of making it out without serious injury very highly. The paddler on the beach was pointing further down the beach and following his directions I noticed what looked like a gap in the rocks. Doing my best to swim the boat in that direction I felt myself getting swept along the coast towards the rocks at Big Bay. Close to the shore the current was very strong. A wave hit me from behind and holding onto the boat I was dragged to within 20m of the shore. That was the answer! Hold onto the boat and get pulled to shore, assuming the boat did not arrive on shore with just my arm attached after being ripped out of its socket! Another wave smacked into me and then the paddler on the beach grabbed the nose of my boat and I could stand. The waves had pushed me right into the beach and over the rocks without injury. Had I given in to my thought of swimming in without the boat, not only would my boat have been destroyed, but I probably would not have been able to swim against the current and get over the rocks.

The paddler on the beach turned out to be part of a doubles pair, Johan and Theo from the Strand paddlers group. We barely managed to carry my boat up the beach into the shrieking wind and I staggered along frozen and exhausted. I first phoned the emergency race number given during the briefing and reported both the double and myself as being safely ashore. Then I phoned a friend who lives on the Blouberg beachfront. Luckily he was home and immediately came through and gave me a lift to Melkbos. I later went back to fetch my boat and go home.

Not my finest downwind experience, and probably the closest I have come to being in real trouble while paddling. I was very fortunate to make it ashore without injury, and luck played a huge role. As I came in over the rocks it was during a lull in the sets and the waves were small. It could quite easily have been a big wave pummeling me into the rocks, and I was grateful to whichever guardian angel had my back.

As could be expected in those conditions there were a few other incidents: Torries snapped his blade (actually's spare blade) and had to raft up with Andre Jooste. They let off about 5 flares until finally they were spotted by Blouberg Lifesaving and eventually picked up by the NSRI. Andrew Gillespie fell out and lost his paddle getting back in (he had a leg leash but no paddle leash) and found out the hard way that the boat is a bit useless without the paddle. Another job for the NSRI who were magnificent on the day. Several other competitors pulled out along the way, including the doubles crew that helped me on the beach. But for the vast majority of paddlers it was an epic downwind, and there were smiles aplenty at the finish. A brave (and not irresponsible) decision by the organizers saw the running of a great race.

For me there were a few lessons learned. I tend to paddle in fairly extreme conditions and when everything works as it should then its pretty safe. But when things go wrong, they go from bad to worse in a heartbeat and its possible to get into real trouble. Safety equipment is non-negotiable. A paddle leash AND a leg leash should be worn as well as a PFD. A waterproof phone or a phone in a bag is good, but several flares should be carried as well. Andre's comment was that in the howling wind he could not hear the phone inside the drybag and it was next to useless. He also mentioned that it took at least 5 flares before they were noticed. I always paddle with a waterproof phone but don't usually carry flares… until now! I still believe I made the correct decision to go for shore and self rescue is most often the best option, assuming you have the experience to make a good evaluation of your chances.

Postscript: Examining my boat at home I found the moldings on the pedals through which they hinged on the pivot point were sub standard and had broken off under pressure. Not something that would have been picked up even under a thorough inspection, but just as dangerous in any case.

Paddle safe,
Last edit: 13 years 3 months ago by jtresfon. Reason: Spelling!

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13 years 3 months ago #6233 by [email protected]
Well done for keeping it together there Jean - and thank you for sharing the story with us. Much food for thought.

Have to say that I like having my ICOM VHF radio - much easier to use than a phone. Cost about R1800 and I've had it now for over three years - the annualized cost is coming down!


Currently Fenn Swordfish S, Epic V10 Double.
Previously: Think Evo II, Carbonology Zest, Fenn Swordfish, Epic V10, Fenn Elite, Red7 Surf70 Pro, Epic V10 Sport, Genius Blu, Kayak Centre Zeplin, Fenn Mako6, Custom Kayaks ICON, Brian's Kayaks Molokai, Brian's Kayaks Wedge and several others...

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13 years 3 months ago #6235 by jbk
I have only recently started ocean paddling. I was advised to carry a small piece of closed cell foam, cut from a roll up camping mattress. This can be wedged between the rudder and hull to at least keep the rudder straight. Not sure if this would have helped?

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13 years 3 months ago #6241 by Zebra
Great feedback/report on your paddle and self-rescue.

Just a couple of pointers/tips that may help, jean:
A few of us carry a small piece of thin rubber mat with a punched hole, on the lanyard with our car key hung around our neck. In the event of a rudder cable braking (or your more unusual pedal double-failure), then you just 'tear' it off the lanyard, and jam it under the rudder itself, which then gives you a 'locked' rudder.

On Saturday I used double-leashes for the 1st time in a couple of months - had been using just the leg leash, but thought Saturday's conditions warranted doubling-up.

Well done on having the emergency number supplied to hand, nice that you took the time to take it down.

I carry a cell-phone AND flares in a small waterproof pouch, which means when I open the pouch, the phone is to hand, but of course it can get wet. I guess I should try and make a phonecall through the pouch WHILE at sea, have not tried this yet.

Will bring along some thin rubber mat for you on Tuesday, if you wish.

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13 years 3 months ago #6252 by Guy.S
Thanks for the tip re the rubber to jam the rudder - breaking a rudder cable is a real risk when far out to sea. I will definitely look at finding something & carrying it with me.

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