Lessons from the Edge

Wednesday, 11 March 2020 14:35 | Written by 
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Extreme Conditions on a Miller's Run - what we all live for! Extreme Conditions on a Miller's Run - what we all live for!

“Hey, Rob! Help!” The shouts penetrated the sound of the howling wind and crashing waves – and even through the noise it was obvious from the tone of his voice that something was seriously wrong. I turned and headed back upwind.

“Proper” Miller’s Run

The Miller’s Run taxi was full (15 paddlers, their surfskis on the trailer) and buzzing as we headed along Main Road past Simon’s Town. The Southeaster was blowing hard – registering 30kt average, gusting almost to 40kt and we could see squalls lifting twisting clouds of spray off the surface of the heaving, white-capped waves. Yeehaaaaa! This was going to be good!

My buddy Pete Holloway was paddling his brand new (second time on the water) Fennix Swordfish S and I was keen to dice with him – we often have similar times on the Miller’s Run and it would be interesting to see if the new boat had any significant advantage over my older generation Swordfish S.

As we headed out to the rock at the start of the run, it was clear that conditions were quite extreme – aside from the strength of the wind, the waves were all over the place, and I found myself bracing frequently.

Some 50m ahead of me, Pete rounded the rock and set off. I hit the start button on my GPS and followed.

I struggled to get going in the maelstrom of confused chop; the wind was gusting in an offshore direction and my average speed for the first km was a slow 13.8kph. But as usual, the further we got from Miller’s Point, the better the conditions. The wind swung back to the SE, the waves started to straighten up and my speed climbed. 15kph for the second km, then, as I started to catch Pete, 15.7kph for the third km.

Conditions were still demanding, but it was becoming easier to make sequences, the runs were lengthening, and it was shaping up to be a memorable paddle.

I overtook Pete and put my head down… and that was when I heard him shouting.

Broken Paddle

To my surprise, I was able to turn quite easily into wind. When I got to him, Pete was still upright, but paddling on one side only; his paddle shaft had fractured on one side about 20cm from the blade.

I went upwind of him and drifted back, intending to raft up with him.

As we came together, he lost his balance and fell into the chilly (15C) water. He remounted quickly, but without a paddle he rolled over again. By then I was alongside and while I held his ski, he remounted again. In the process, the broken halves of his paddle had also fallen in the water and they drifted away.

As he looked at the one half of his paddle that was still afloat some 10m away upwind, I could see the thought flash briefly across his face, “should I swim for it? Nah!”

So now what?

We were approximately 3.5km into the run, and about 1.5km offshore. The wind was picking up, as were the waves. Inshore, we could see squalls lifting spray off the water indicating very strong gusts of 35kt plus. The seas were at the point where every now and then the breaking waves were rumbling menacingly for a couple of seconds. Already we were feeling the cold. The wind direction was slightly offshore, and our direction of drift was such that we were being driven seaward of Roman Rock lighthouse.

By rafting together and paddling on one side, we’d definitely make it to shore, and we briefly debated whether we should call for help or not. But really, for me it was a no-brainer. It was already 16h45 and we didn’t have much time to play with. It was cold, we were in a fairly serious situation, conditions were deteriorating and if anything else went wrong we’d really be in trouble.

Pete took his phone out and hit the SafeTrx emergency call button. I hauled out my radio and commenced calling on Channel 16.


DSC 1131

Another day, another hectic Miller's Run - but how seriously should we take the "Buddy System" in these conditions?


Things then took a mildly farcical turn.

Pete’s call somehow got routed through to the Pretoria Ambulance service.  (For those unfamiliar with South Africa's geography, Pretoria is a landlocked inland city, about 1,300km away from Cape Town!)


And on the radio, I didn’t get through to anyone. I made several calls, but the radio was silent. No replies.

That was a stunner. We laughed, slightly hysterically, and tried again.

This time Pete did get through to the NSRI Ops Center, who said they could see our position on SafeTrx and that they’d call NSRI Simon’s Town who’d call us back. That’s more like it!

And after a while I managed to get a response from Cape Town radio. I’d initially broadcast a Pan Pan, but on getting no reply, I hit the big red Distress button on the radio to initiate a DSC distress call – that would broadcast our GPS position to any nearby DSC-capable receivers but it also meant effectively converting the Pan Pan (which is the lesser priority call) to a full-on Mayday.

I didn’t think our situation really merited a Mayday, but a DSC-call is like a pregnancy – if you start it, there's no stopping and once we’d committed to calling the NSRI, it was up to us to provide as much information to them (like our GPS position) as possible to make it as easy as possible for them to find us.

At that point the radio came alive, and I could hear Cape Town radio calling us. “Station calling Mayday, please repeat…” But I could not make myself heard. On their side they could only hear a garbled noise; they couldn’t make out a word that I said.

Meanwhile, Pete’s phone rang. It was NSRI Simon’s Town station commander Darren Zimmerman and Pete explained what had happened, who was involved and where we were. Darren said he had our SafeTrx position, that he’d be activating the rescue craft and that he’d call us back.


Now that we knew help was on the way, we reevaluated our situation.

The waves were getting bigger as we drifted (at around 3.5kph) towards the outside of the lighthouse, and every now and then one would break on us, shaking the skis violently and soaking us.

So rather than just sit there getting cold, we decided to see how far we could get, paddling the rafted skis downwind.

Pete gripped my ski with both hands, holding it steady while I paddled on one side.

Fish Hoek was directly downwind but about 8km away, so we headed at a diagonal to the wind and waves towards Simon’s Town, by now only about 2km away.

And we made pretty good progress – looking afterwards at the GPS track, we were moving at around 6.5kph, albeit with pauses when we were knocked off course by the odd obstreperous breaking wave.



We’d made good progress by the time we spotted the big 10m NSRI boat, “Spirit of Safmarine”. They’d gone to our previous position upwind of Roman Rock lighthouse about a km away from us, smashing through the waves in sheets of spray.

And it was now that the VHF radio came into its own. As we’d got closer to Simon’s Town, I could hear the calls from Darren more and more clearly, and by yelling into my radio’s microphone and by sheltering it from the wind in the collar of my PFD, I was able to talk to him.

Having been inside the NSRI craft in rough weather, I know how poor the visibility is, and how difficult it is to spot a small craft on the ocean.

The view from "Spirit of Safmarine III" - As a paddler you'll see them long before they can see you! (Credit: Simon McDonnell)

With Darren relaying my instructions, I was able to tell the boat’s skipper where to steer, and moments later they were alongside.

I have to confess that the scariest moment of the whole incident for me was the sight of that huge rescue craft plunging on the wild sea close to our delicate slivers of fiberglass… But it was clear the crew knew exactly what they were doing, and we were in no danger of being crushed.

One of the deckhands tossed across a heaving line and Pete pulled himself alongside.

I was nervous of possible damage to my boat if it was to be hauled on board, besides which the downwind conditions were so good, so I bade them farewell and set off to complete the paddle to Fish Hoek on my own.

In retrospect, that was probably a dumb decision. I should have got on the boat with Pete. Why didn’t I? If I’m honest, it was a combination of ego (“I’m not the one being rescued”) coupled with a desire to complete the paddle.

Whatever – I had a fabulous run, as evidenced on Strava by the sub-4 minute splits.

I did not warm up though and was shaking with cold when I got to the beach, in spite of wearing the full outfit of Vaikobi V-cold pants and (brand new) top.

A non-event?  Not quite

Pete was a rock – with his strength and calmness we could have self-rescued with him holding the boats together and me paddling.  But I’m happy with the decision to call the NSRI; the sea conditions were extreme and getting worse, and the cold was a major factor.

But there were some interesting take-aways:

Phones in Pouches Work

Pete uses an iPhone X and found it fairly easy to work the touch screen even through his waterproof pouch and with wet fingers.  He says that he thinks it’s important a) for the interior of the pouch to be absolutely dry and b) for there to be some air in the pouch so that the surface doesn’t stick to the phone’s screen.

SafeTrx Works

SafeTrx “takes the search out of search and rescue” – at least to some extent.  But we still had to guide the boat that last km towards us using the radio (although the phone could have worked for that too).

The Radio

Afterwards, Darren told me that the key to using the radio in those conditions is to blow hard onto the microphone to displace any water there…  The reason for the garbled voice was probably a combination of the strong, noisy wind blowing over the mic and water covering it. 

I’ve often made calls to Cape Town radio to ask for radio checks, and I’ve used the radio once to make an emergency call, but in relatively calm conditions.  The situation we were in was very different.

The Buddy System

Over the years I’ve pretty much written off the buddy system (i.e. staying within contact of your paddle buddy), believing (and sometimes experiencing) that it’s often impossible to maneuver to someone’s aid in big wind and sea conditions.  Perhaps it’s a combination of more experience, fitness and the wonderful stability of my Swordfish S, but it was relatively easy to get back to Pete yesterday.

And if I hadn’t been close enough for him to call me, things could have been a lot more serious.  Had he been on his own, he’d definitely have found himself in the water – it was only a matter of time until he lost his balance.  In any case, to operate his phone to call for help, he’d have had to have been in the water. 

It wouldn’t have taken long for him to get very cold. 

This is probably the one aspect that really gives me pause for thought about the whole incident.  On the Miller's Run, we usually go hell-for-leather, and only buddy up absolutely insane conditions.  Yesterday was extreme, by most people's standards, but I was completely focussed on dicing and gave no thought to the safety aspects at all...  A case of familiarity breeding contempt? 


I was surprised at how cold we got.  Obviously, we were soaked, but we were out of the water on our skis, albeit exposed to the wind. 

And this rescue was really quick.  From initial call to pick-up, it was only about 40min.  If we hadn’t had SafeTrx, it would have been considerably longer.

I thought the paddle back to the beach would warm me up – but I was wrong. 

Radio, Phone, Flares, Whistle, Plans A, B and C

Now that I know a little more about using the radio in extreme conditions, I’m more confident that I could make an audible call.  But I’ll be testing this again on a future run.  It would be nice to know that I can in fact call Cape Town radio even in rough conditions.

I’d previously pretty much given up any thought of manipulating the phone inside the waterproof pouch, but now I’m more confident that that can be done too.  (I carry it in any case with SafeTrx running so that I can be tracked, emergency situation or not…)

On this occasion I didn’t have to use flares or whistle, but I carry them too.

I’m more convinced than ever that if you’re going to go out in hectic conditions (and for me downwind paddling, which by its nature involves hectic conditions, is the essence of surfski paddling), then it’s best to have a multi-layered approach to safety. 

I’ve not been rescued yet – but if I do ever find myself being rescued, I want to make it as easy as possible to call for help and to help my rescuers find me!

The NSRI Rock!

Here in Cape Town, we have a particularly strong relationship with the NSRI. 

With the sheer volume of paddlers on the Miller’s run (our group of 18 “Miller’s Maniacs” alone did a combined total of some 500 last year) it’s inevitable that there should be the occasional incident and we’ve grown very close to (and fond of!) the local NSRI crew in Simon’s Town, to the extent that we’ve done search and rescue exercises with them and they’re even on the main Miller’s Run whatsapp group.

And it’s this closeness and understanding that saw them not only rescuing Pete in double-quick time, but also taking care to cushion his precious new surfski on the deck of the rescue boat.

A heartfelt and grateful thank you to the NSRI Station 10 crew in Simon’s Town!


NSRI 7339

The "Spirit of Safmarine" - at speed!


Since a particularly grueling rescue during a race in December 2009, South African surfski paddlers have contributed some R6,7million through a special fund-raising account to the NSRI.

If you would like to support this initiative please call Lianne at the NSRI Call Centre on 021 430 4701 or send her an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Please let Lianne know that you would like to support the Surfski initiative.

You could win one of five R10 000 prizes each month as well as a R100 000 in our annual December draw. For R50 per month, you will get 2 tickets giving you 10 entries each month and 2 entries into the December R100 000 draw.

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