When things go wrong...

Thursday, 13 December 2012 08:27 | Written by 
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The AMS METRO Rescue Helicopter hovers overhead, directing the NSRI's Eddie Beaumont II rescue RIP to the scene. The AMS METRO Rescue Helicopter hovers overhead, directing the NSRI's Eddie Beaumont II rescue RIP to the scene. Credits: Barry Lewin, John Hishin, Kassie Crous, Chops Craig

Chasing 3m breaking waves in 35kt gusts is the best fun you can have outside of tangled sheets – but gear failure can be a much bigger issue.  You have to be mentally and physically prepared for things to go wrong…

Big waves, wind… and the men in grey suits.

Here in Cape Town, the southeaster has been blowing for weeks… and when the southeaster blows, paddlers in the southern suburbs head for the (in)famous Millers Run – a dynamic 11.75km downwind route from Millers Point to Fish Hoek.

The real challenge of the Millers Run is that you seldom have clean, straight waves; usually you’ll have two or three sets of waves running at different angles which make it tricky, not only to link sequences of runs together, but simply to stay on the ski. 

You can be surfing down the face of one wave, when the crest of another smacks into you, side-on.  Basically if you can handle the Millers Run on a big day, you can handle almost any conditions.   But if there’s any doubt about your ability or your equipment – you’ll be found out.

On the edge

Matt Winter recently graduated from a Fenn XT to the faster, but tippier, Fenn Mako Elite but he was confident that he’d be able to handle the new boat in the runs. 

“But I hadn’t tightened the length lock on my split paddle,” he said.  “I’m very sensitive to the angle and when it slipped near the lighthouse, it caused me to lose my balance and fall in.”


Winter tried for some time to remount his ski and succeeded a number of times in getting back in – but he’d been unable to reset the angle on his paddle, and with that and the strong side-on wind and 2-3m breaking waves, he found it impossible to get the boat going fast enough to turn downwind.  And inevitably, he kept falling back in the water. 

Eventually, cold and exhausted, he reached for his cellphone. 

“My Blackberry is being repaired,” he said, “so at the moment I’m using a simple old Nokia.  The great thing about that was that I could press one button to call for help.” 

That one-button press dialed the last number he’d called – and within seconds he was speaking to Nikki Mocke, and she immediately called the Simonstown NSRI station who in turn activated their crew and the AMS METRO rescue helicopter.

“I was quite anxious,” said Winter, “I’ve done a lot of fishing and I know what swims in these waters!” 

Enter the pros

Meanwhile Dawid Mocke and Barry Lewin had launched at Millers Point for their own Millers Run and twenty or so minutes later found Winter floating next to his ski. 

Lewin assisted Winter to get back on his ski and he started paddling only to be knocked off yet again.  “Shame,” chuckled Lewin, “he only got about 20m and a big foamie just took him out!” 

Cold, exhausted and uncertain about the setup of his paddle, Winter decided to sit it out and minutes later the AMS METRO chopper was overhead, guiding the NSRI’s RIB, the Eddie Beaumont II to the scene.

NSRI Rescue

The Eddie Beaumont II rescue RIB, being guided to the scene by the AMS METRO rescue chopper

Home and dry

The NSRI crew loaded Winter and his gear onto the RIB and sped back to their Simonstown base. 

“I was so impressed by the calmness of the paddler and the efficiency of the NSRI crew,” said Lewin.  “NSRI Simonstown are rockstars!”

Eddie Beaumont II

Safe and sound - the only casualty a slightly bruised ego!

The Right Gear

“A few months ago,” said Winter, “Dawid gave us a class on safety and stressed the importance of a leash.  If I’d lost the boat yesterday, I’d have been in deep trouble.

“The two main things for me,” he reiterated, “were the fact that I was wearing a leash, and that because I had an ancient old phone, it was so easy to use.”

Something to think about.

“My uncle is one of those guys who hounds people in malls, raising funds for the NSRI,” he laughed.  “I signed up about five months ago, so I feel better about that!”

NSRI and Surfski

NSRI Simonstown

The NSRI and surfski paddling in the Western Cape enjoy a close relationship - pictured here are the Station 10 boats (Simonstown) providing security at the recent Peter Creese Lighthouse Race, which was held in testing 30kt conditions.

In 2008, surfski.info was privileged to be able to organize a search and rescue exercise with the NSRI during which a whole range of equipment and techniques were tested.  Click here for the story of that day.

In 2009, the Best 4 Surfski Series director Billy Harker handed over his entire database to the NSRI fundraisers, following a dramatic five hour rescue of a paddler taking part in a race in False Bay.  A year later, nearly a million Rand had accumulated; enough to buy the Gordon’s Bay NSRI station a fully equipped rescue RIB.

Millers Run

“Personally, I love the Millers Run – I’ve done literally hundreds of them,” said Rob Mousley, editor of the website surfski.info.  “But when it’s big, I still have plenty of respect for it.

“I was chatting to some of the senior paddlers recently and they expressed concern that some novice paddlers were being encouraged to do the run on big days.  If you’re not experienced, rather wait until the weather is a little less hectic and have an enjoyable run.

And as one of the club seniors said, "If you are experienced and you encourage someone else to go beyond their ability and something goes wrong, YOU will be held responsible.  The Millers Run is an extreme paddle on big days, and should only be attempted after you've done several in milder conditions.”


Official NSRI Press Release

The NSRI said,

“At 17H03 on Tuesday 11 December NSRI Simons Town were called by Nikki Mocke who had been contacted directly by the paddler who had his cell-phone in a waterproof pouch and was able to call for help.

He had broken his paddle and in the rough sea conditions was not able to stay on his ski. He was drifting in 35 knot winds and 3 meter breaking swells and struggling to hold on to his surf ski. The AMS METRO Helicopter was dispatched as well as the Sea Rescue boat Eddie Beaumont II from NSRI Simons Town. The  helicopter located the casualty half a mile to the West of Roman Rock light house. He was being assisted by other paddlers.

The helicopter remained over the casualty as a reference for the rescue boat. Eddie Beaumont II arrived shortly after the helicopter and recovered the paddler and his surf ski and returned to Simons Town with them.

Sea Rescue commends the paddler for having his safety equipment on him. Paddlers should always wear a PFD with pencil flares, cd or mirror for signalling for help, and a cell phone in a water proof pouch attached to it – not stored in the hull. Paddles should be attached to the craft with a leash and in high wind the paddler should also be attached to his craft with a leash.”

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