For boats equipped with sails, wind on the ocean can be a wonderful thing. For boats that do not have sails, wind (especially a lot of it at once) can be one of the most tricky things we deal with. This was brought home to me on a trip I guided at the Iceberg Lodge this past June, which was the first of many interesting (and occasionally terrifying) scenarios that Alaska handed out to the Iceberg Lodge this summer.
|A lone kayak on Aialik Bay|
It was a few days past the summer solstice, and I was out with another guide I’ll call Jay and ten guests. We’d been scheduled to do a trip across Aialik Bay to a cove on the far shore, but the guides who went out to the beach to scout conditions and set up the kayaks reported wind at our launch point. We decided that we’d be better off sticking to a route that kept us closer to shore, and informed our clients of the change in plan. By the time we actually left the point with guests, the wind had died down to almost nothing. Heading north along the shores of the bay, we actually had pretty idyllic paddling conditions. After about a mile, the group came to the southern tip of a small island, and we began working our way up its western side, paddling in a wide, protected channel between the island and the mainland. Mostly, the island drops down to the water as a series of 30-50 foot cliffs, which are covered with wildflowers and are very scenic to look at, but useless if you're looking for someplace to land. We checked out some puffins, watched a few murrelets popping up and down. About forty minutes later, we reached the north tip of the island, and spent a few minutes photographing the glacier at the head of the bay. Then we started paddling back south, continuing our loop around the island by paddling back along the eastern, more exposed side of the island.
After about ten minutes, this began to look like a bad call. Almost immediately after we started south, the wind began picking up. Halfway down the island, we reached a sort of marginal landing beach. This beach is easy to land on in calm conditions, but with any sort of swell or waves, it becomes very tricky to land there safely. I’d hoped to be able to make a pit stop here, but the swell was picking up enough that I didn’t think we’d be able to land there without courting problems. We kept paddling south. And the wind kept blowing, and the swell kept growing larger. At one point, the waves began coming in so rapidly that my first thought was that we were dealing with a particularly weird boat wake. Of course, it wasn’t a boat wake; there wasn’t a boat anywhere in the area that could have created it. What we did have was the wind, and lots of it. I have never in four years of paddling in the bay seen the weather turn that much that quickly. When we passed middle beach, the conditions were mildly choppy, and by the time we got to the south end, we were paddling in whitecaps and gusts, and I was pretty thoroughly alarmed. After leaving the marginal beach, I was thinking that it was just going to be a slog getting back to the launch point because we were going to be paddling in a headwind the entire way. A few minutes later, I was thinking that we needed to get back on the protected side of the island (where there was a protected beach we could land on), and re-evaluate. A few minutes after that, I was thinking that we weren’t even going to make it that far.
We went from marginal paddling conditions straight into hazardous paddling conditions in the space of about eight minutes. Fortunately, there was one good thing about our current position. There was a potential landing beach on the south tip of the island, and we were very, very close to it. The bad thing about this beach was that it faced south, which meant that it was getting pummeled by the incoming waves. Also, we were paddling south, which meant that to get to the beach, we were going to have to turn broadside to the waves. Basically this meant that instead paddling directly into the waves, and letting the bow cut through the wave, we were going to have to turn so that the waves were hitting the entire length of the kayak. If you haven’t spend much time in a kayak, here’s a quick fact: kayaks are not very stable when broadsides to waves.
As soon as we got within sight of the beach, I started yelling to the other boats that we were making a landing on the south end of the island, told them to follow my boat, and warned them that as we made our turn, the boats would feel less stable until we got the waves back at our stern. (This sounded more comforting than what I was thinking, which was that as we made the turn, there was a good chance that one or more of the boats might capsize.) The wind was loud enough at this point that I really did have to yell just to try and be heard over it. Apparently that wasn’t even enough, because Jay, faithfully tailing the back of the group, went into loudspeaker mode and started repeating everything I just said for the people at the back of the group. (He later told me that from the back, I was barely audible even when I was shouting.) And then we were making our turn, and the waves were slapping the side of my boat, pushing the left-hand side up into the air as the wave crested beneath me, and then immediately sucking the left side into the water as the wave passed on. There was perhaps a minute when I didn’t dare turn around to look behind me because it was taking all of my balance and attention to keep my own boat under control, never mind trying to keep track of anyone else. One good thing that the group had going for us was that the clients were all in double kayaks, which are wider, heavier and more stable than the single kayaks that Jay and I were paddling, which meant that Jay and I were getting the rockiest ride. I still thought that one of the client boats was going to biff it when they rounded the corner.
Another stroke with the paddle, and my bow was finally pointed towards the beach. I could still hear Jay behind me hollering instructions to the clients, which mostly consisted of trying to keep the boats from bumping into each other as they made the turn. The doubles have wide turning radiuses under the best of circumstances, and the waves weren’t making it any easier for the clients to control their boats. Once I felt that the waves were behind me, I paddled hard towards the beach. I hit the shore and jumped out of my kayak. As I stood up, the wind picked up my heavy-duty, vinyl spray skirt and blew it straight out in front of me. I pulled my kayak far enough out of the water that the waves wouldn’t suck it back out to sea, and immediately started landing boats. It was not a textbook landing; I basically just grabbed the nearest bow and pulled it far enough up the beach that the kayak grounded out, and then went right for the next boat. Jay was doing his best to try and stagger the clients coming in so that they weren’t all paddling in on top of each other, but it was still quite a train wreck. The good thing was that no one had flipped their kayak; I had been fully expecting that Jay was going to have to pick up a couple of swimmers before he’d be able to land.
As soon as everyone was on shore, Jay became my hero and immediately jumped into client care mode – making sure that everyone had some granola bars or a couple of fruit strips, passing out my bag of extra gloves and hats to anyone who was cold. The wind was still howling at this point, and the wind chill, combined with the fact that the guests were no longer creating their own heat by paddling, had made the apparent temperature feel significantly colder than when we were on the water. I got on the radio, passing on the information about what had happened and where we were, talking at various points to the Iceberg Lodge, to an area water taxi, and to another Lodge guide who had run into the same weather event while paddling on the more protected side of the island.
While I was managing the logistics of all this, Jay got all the clients huddled in a corner of the beach that was slightly protected from the wind, and started leading everyone in a rousing chorus of the Gilligan’s Island theme song – which seemed appropriate since our three-hour tour had turned into the whole group getting stranded on an island. He also led a discussion on what the concept of wilderness meant to the individual guests, lead everyone in some staying-warm calisthenics, cleaned up some trash off the beach, and started collecting driftwood to make some wilderness beach art. In other words, he was a rock star, and kept the clients busy enough that they didn’t have time to get bored, or worried, or cold.
After about an hour, we were picked up from the beach by our trusty local water taxi, the Weather or Knot, and thanked the captain and crew profusely, especially since he’d never actually landed on that beach before. We loaded up our kayaks and clients, and then immediately went over to another beach on the mainland, to pick up the other Lodge guide and his clients. Since this group had been paddling along the western side of the island, they were much more protected from the swell than we were, but they were paddling into a headwind so strong that the group was having difficulty making any forward progress. We loaded everyone back up in the water taxi, and were dropped off at the landing beach, somewhat windblown but otherwise in good shape. We thanked the captain again, sent the clients off to the Lodge to eat and warm up, and started unloading and putting away our boats.
|Grey weather in the Gulf of Alaska|
The retrospective on this one is that, basically, we were very lucky that we were so close to a landing beach – any landing beach – when the weather turned. We were also very lucky that the guides who had scouted the beach early in the morning had seen wind and made the call to change our route. Again, the conditions when we launched were good, and there was nothing in the weather forecast that would indicate we were in for rough weather. Had the guides not noticed the wind – or had Jay and I decided to paddle our original open-water route when we launched in glassy conditions – the outcome of our adventure could have been very different. Had the wind caught us while we were out in the middle of the bay, our only feasible option would have been to pull all the kayaks together in a big raft (which is more stable) and hope that the wind blew us good places (like the landing beach on the north end of the bay, or into the protected side of the island) and not bad places (straight into an iceberg, or into a sea cliff, or straight into the face of Aialik Glacier). We decided on a conservative route, and stuck with that decision even when it looked like we could have changed it. This was good.
Another thing this has confirmed is my tendency to be somewhat of a packrat when it comes to guiding trips. In this case, we had food and extra gloves and hats on hand to give to people who were cold. Had we been on the island for any significant length of time (if the water taxi hadn’t been able to pick us up, for example), or if any of the clients had actually capsized, having stuff at hand would have been even more critical. (On a typical trip when I am out with clients, I have with me six pairs of extra hats and gloves, an extra fleece top, an extra pair of socks, two bivvy sacks, two sets of XL shirts and pants, two emergency blankets, half a dozen granola bars, extra water and water purification tablets, a client care kit with sunscreen, bug spray, hand cream, and feminine hygiene essentials, two first aid kits (my own and my company’s) and my personal survival kit. And this is just for a day trip.) This is why transporting gear on kayaks is so much nicer than transporting gear by backpack - you can fit a ****ton of gear into a kayak hatch.
So that was another good thing. One thing that didn’t go so well was actually getting the kayaks onto the beach. Once the kayaks made their turn and felt the waves behind their boats, many of the clients just stopped paddling, counting on the waves to get the kayak the rest of the way into shore. The clients were right to assume that the waves would do this; they were wrong to assume that the waves would do this in a way they’d appreciate.
If you’re riding a wave but not paddling, you’re basically just letting the water do whatever it wants with the boat. If the wave is pushing your boat at a good angle, you get a free ride in whatever direction the wave is taking you. If the wave is pushing at a bad angle, it can spin the boat sideways and cause all sorts of nastiness, from a fairly straightforward drenching to the sort of landing where you get slammed head-first into the beach with the boat on top of you. Fortunately, none of our clients got surfed by the waves, and even our train wreck of a landing was enough to get everyone on shore in one piece. However, if even one boat had turned sideways and rolled onto the beach, it could have gone very differently – for one thing, as closely as everyone was bunched up trying to land, if one boat had rolled or turned sideways, the other kayaks might not have been able to stop before running over the boat ahead of them.
We did a few things right, we did a few things wrong. The depressing take-away message is that I can’t really pinpoint a fatal flaw – some one little thing that we ignored, or didn’t do, that would have prevented us from getting caught in this weather event entirely. Kind of hard to predict when even the National Weather Service gets caught off guard. Not only did the NWS not see this coming, but it also took the local tour boat fleet by surprise as well. On the water, we customarily monitor the local whale-watching chatter channel on our marine radios, and the entire morning we were hearing snatches of transmissions from some of the tour boats further out in the Gulf of Alaska. None of what I was able to hear sounded good. In retrospect, that broken radio chatter turned out to be out best indication that the weather was about to get epic, and is something I will definitely be paying more attention to in the future.
As it turned out, most of those boats Jay and I heard ended up going back to the harbor due to the conditions. Even the lodge’s own boat was forced to go back to town without dropping off any of their guests. For a while, it was looking like the water taxi crew who’d rescued us were going to be stuck in the bay overnight. Fortunately, the weather settled down late in the day, and the water taxi was able to get back to town, bringing all of its own day-trip guests, as well as a few of our guests who were trying to get back to town. During all of the ensuing chaos, several of the guests from the morning tour made a point of thanking Jay and I for taking such good care of them, and for being so careful of their safety. (I think they were mostly impressed that Jay and I got first a landing beach and then a water taxi to seemingly materialize out of nowhere.) I am not really sure whether the clients actually realized that we had crossed the line between perceived risk and actual risk, but we were paddling in conditions on the wrong side of that line for a lot longer than I would have liked. Everyone was able to control their boat, no one capsized, and no one freaked out, but had we continued paddling in those conditions, I think it would only have been a matter of time before one or more of the above situations became a reality.
Once I got back to the Lodge and was able to check the marine weather, the forecast up for the following day was the information we should have gotten for the day we’d just survived - wind calm becoming south twenty knots, seas building to four feet. Given that the weather out in the Gulf had been bad that morning, I think that what we got caught up in wasn’t so much a change in the wind speed as a change in the wind’s direction. If a strong wind changed direction in such a way that it was able to suddenly blow unimpeded down the whole twenty-mile length of Aialik Bay, it could possibly bring about the rapid change of conditions that Jay and I experienced. There are some narrow lakes that are famous for this, and these events are considered very dangerous precisely because there is little to no warning that the wind is increasing. First, it’s calm. And then out of nowhere, the wind goes haywire. I’ve never seen or heard of this happening in Aialik, but its my best guess for what was going on that day. Either that, or someone at the celestial weather control board found the suck knob, and turned it up to eleven.