Thursday, February 02, 2006

Iceland Expedition

(Cross-posted from Kayak yak yak)

So, spent the evening yesterday (01 February) at the University of Victoria, listening to a couple present the slide how of their trip around Iceland in the summer of 2003. After receiving an unexpected invitation from another paddler, they spent five months away from their business on Orca Island—Body Boat Blade—with three of those months dedicated to the actual circumnavigation of Iceland. The talk is fascinating, believe me. From the volcanic black sand beaches to the basalt columns, from the trolls to the fjords, it is clear that they are having a hard time keeping their talk to under thirty-two hours long. The people and culture of Iceland alone seemed suitable for a(nother) book; here is a very small population (some towns they visited were as small as fourteen people) yet everyone was tightly wired together with cell phones and internet access, and surrounded by fabulous public art. But there were also what I saw as personal contradictions: heads of local kayak paddle clubs who had never been out of their home fjord being one significant example.

But the one incident that stuck out for me happened only fifteen days out. The three of them decided to paddle the worst section of the circumnavigation first—the southern coast. The south coast of Iceland is fully exposed to the major storm tracks of the North Atlantic, with steady daily winds that are regularly in the hundred kilometre/hour and up class. This builds seas that quite frankly are seriously frightening to a newbie like me. Paddling to James Island solo, I was having a bit of a time with waves that were only sixty to eighty centimetres high. Here, the seas were regularly running six to eight metres high.

Tuesday (31 January) here in Victoria we had a storm blow through that saw winds blowing 100+ km/hr, winds that snapped trees, knocked out power to 50,000 homes, and shut down ferry traffic due to high seas. Shawna and Leon went out paddling around Victoria. Just another day for paddling (their motto being; if you can walk against the wind, you can paddle against it).

But, as they said, being fifteen days out everything has shaken down, your body is responding to the increased demands of regular seven to ten hour paddles, and you're starting to think you know what you're doing. Because launches and landings are so difficult (massive surf, steep beaches), you only launch in the morning and land only in the evening unless something really important arises. Lunch, snacks, urination, all take place on the ocean.

Leon had been having a less than perfect day—he'd been taking a whizz earlier when a wave caught him and filled his cockpit. Not the end of the world, but chilling and frustrating. When a particularly large wave was approaching one or the other of them would call “wave!” and they would turn into the wave, trying to cut up the front and beat the curl over to the back of the wave. As they said, this was standard operating procedure for them. They've spent years training and practising to make this as normal as breathing.

These waves were quite steep, and when Shawna sliced up and over, the kayak almost launched off the water—only the stern stayed in the water, and the whole boat would then come crashing down flat on the back of the wave. Again, normal, everyday activity (okay, normal for them, and repeated over and over all day long). Leon was running a bit behind Shawna, and when his boat reached the apex of its climb the stern of the boat caught in the face of the wave—essentially anchoring him in place while the wave continued to move. So yes, microseconds later the boat was standing on its stern and then the fully-loaded boat was falling backwards onto Leon, burying him in the face of the wave. For me, this is beyond scary. For Leon, just another day at the office.

As he told the eighty or so of us in the audience, this is something he practises, knowing that it's going to happen frequently enough that recovery should be automatic. Except that this wave was having none of it. He began his recovery and the wave flipped him back over. And again. And again. And again. At this point, he says, he was burning for air and realized that he was would have to wet exit. As an instructor, he teaches his students not only how to safely get out of a boat, but also the safe way to be in a boat so that you can both get out of it and back into it. And, among other things, that involves not having a lot of crap in and around the cockpit. And yes, he had violated that rule, and so had a tougher time getting out, but also couldn't get back in once he'd righted himself. He had to call for help.

Shawna had turned to check up on him, but wasn't worried; Leon always rolled back upright. She says that it wasn't until he called for help that she realized what she was seeing: Leon was out of his boat. Ultimately she had to get a line on his boat and tow him out while he cleared the cockpit so that he could get back in the boat. A process that left him in the water much longer than it should have.

And then the “fight of the day” erupted. Shawna said “land and warm up.” Leon said “no.” Ultimately he lost that fight—and a good thing too. By the time they landed and got him into dry clothes, he was shaking so hard he couldn't hold a cup of tea.

But as Leon said, they had gotten cocky. One of their sponsors was Kōkatat, so they had state-of-the-art drysuits with them. But for some reason, they weren't wearing them.

So what impressed me was that here was a couple of pro paddlers who were extensively trained for exactly the conditions they were going in to, who had all the experience necessary to handle whatever the ocean would throw at them, and they still got cocky, still made a number of small errors of judgement that added up to a major problem. And even then, Leon, an experienced paddler, wanted to compound the problem by not dealing with its results. And that, my friends, is human nature.

Leon and Shawna will be reprising their presentation tonight (02 February '06) at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel in the Oak Room following a paddle club meeting. Admission will be by donation and is open to the public.

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