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The rainy season has finally arrived in Thailand. Today the wind was blowing hard with the glassy seas of the past few weeks replaced by decent size waves. In the afternoon, my teacher Dave and I left Rawai beach on the southern tip of Phuket for Nai Harn, nestled in the cliff-walled cove around the corner. The thought was to practice beach landing and launching in the surf there.
As we passed the last point before Nai Harn, we encountered some nice clapotis and the ride became a bit bumpy. Clapotis are confused, choppy seas created by the convergence of two waves coming from opposite directions, one wave from the ocean, one from the point of land where it was reflected. It was strange to paddle in the clapotis. My kayak felt a bit unstable, but I actually enjoyed the sensation of being in moving seas. I wondered what would happen if I capsized in those conditions. The surf was crashing on the rocks with such power that no swimmer could possibly survive it. It was intimidating. I still couldnt roll my Feathercraft in flat water. In spite of the three practice sessions I had in the last month, the eskimo roll wasnt my friend. The only way I could get back in my kayak unassisted on the open ocean was to do the cowboy scramble. , I never had any problem with this technique; holding on the boat with one hand on each side of the deck throwing my stomach onto the deck just behind the cockpit and then twisting to face the stern to allow my legs to fit in the cockpit and finally twisting onto my back to find myself seated in my kayak. I mastered it from the first try. That was in flat water. I practiced it every time I needed a refreshing swim or to relieve myself from the natures call. Today, the water didnt seem too rough to make that entry impossible, but it was reaching the limit for this technique. If it failed, the next step would be a re-entry with paddle float, something I had practiced only once.
After the point, I told Dave how much I was enjoying paddling in these new conditions, but that I didnt feel very confident about capsizing here by myself. So, he asked me if I wanted to stop and practice. I looked around, the strong headwind was pushing us directly toward the point, so we paddled a little longer to give us some space in case I couldnt get back in the boat quickly. , Dave asked me to purposefully capsize and try the roll. I had heretofore only practiced in waist deep water with Dave and his paddling buddy Roy and had yet to perform the maneuver successfully. Theyd always had to hold my boat or my paddle and flip the kayak back up to end my struggle. Here I was in rough water, and Dave expected me to roll. After all I was going to practice a wet exit, it wouldnt hurt to try a roll. I set up, took a deep breath, capsized, kept my tuck underwater, positioned my left arm around the hull of my kayak, let the paddle come sideways, and gave a huge hip snap which put me back up instantly. I had just done my first eskimo roll, and it was in a Feathercraft in rough water. Dave was screaming with joy. I was speechless with my eyes wide open still trying to understand what happened. I had done it, the best self rescue technique.
I wanted to enjoy this glorious moment before capsizing again, so we paddled a little farther out. I still needed to practice other self-rescue techniques, so I rolled back underwater. This time I didnt set up my roll correctly and drank salt water on my second try. It was time for a wet exit. I pulled the skirt off to get out of the boat and break the surface for some much needed air. With the strong wind it was important to hold on to both the paddle and the kayak. I flipped the kayak back up and started my cowboy scramble. The water already trapped in the boat followed my body weight rushing to the stern and sinking it. The full rear half of my boat went underwater and the next wave kicked me back in the sea. After moving back to the lee side of the kayak, I made my second attempt but the stern sank even more and the kayak completely filled up. I did my third attempt directly over the cockpit to keep the boat leveled. It worked, but I was seated in a boat full of water and half submerged. The cockpit wasnt clearing the water level. Waves were threatening to capsize me again forcing me to brace continuously. My bilge pump got untied and was floating away. So did my bottle of water. Dave retrieved them for me. As he handed me the pump he realized that my boat barely had enough floatation to prevent it from going down, and that no self rescue technique would work with this boat in those conditions.
The wind was blowing us closer to the cape and we couldnt lose any time. Dave set his kayak next to mine, held on to my paddle and my boat while I put my spray skirt over the cockpit rim. I intended for the spray skirt to prevent any additional water from entering the kayak. In this case, it was already full, with the top of the skirt barely clearing the waves. I hoped by pumping very fast with the pump between my chest and the skirt, we could empty the craft enough to paddle away from the rocks. Each wave crashing over me quickly filled back up the little quantity of water I had managed to pump out from this odd position. This was not going to work and we needed to switch to plan B very quickly. I jumped back in the water, we flipped the boat back over, hull pointing to the sky and lifted the bow over Daves kayak to remove some of the water. This technique usually removes most of the water. But the Feathercraft is a foldable boat. There were no bulkhead separated compartments for the hatches. Lifting the front of the kayak only moved the water all the way to the rear. Still swimming in the water, I tried to lift the stern up a bit to empty the boat but with no leverage beneath my feet, felt useless just sinking without lifting the kayak one inch . Removing all the water we could, we flipped the boat back. Still half full, the cockpit was now clearing the waves. Dave took my paddle back, and I started pumping from the water. Each time I held on to the boat, waves filled up the cockpit again, so I treaded water, while pumping as fast I could. The rocks from the point were soon going to be at a threatening distance. I had to get back in the boat before entering the surf breaking zone or we would be in trouble. With Dave still holding on to the boat and my paddle, I jumped in, stuck my legs in the pool of water, fixed my spray skirt, and kept pumping with the pump between my chest and the skirt. I found that technique useless and opened the front of my skirt and started pumping hard. We looked at the rocks and knew we had to get away without anymore delay. I closed my skirt and paddled strongly to move that heavy boat against the wind. Dave picked up my sea sock cockpit liner from the water which had fallen off when we were emptying the boat using the other kayak as a support.
Although still a beginner, I seem to have gained the reputation as a strong paddler. Dave called me a monster paddler. But clearing the cape area in this full boat took most of my energy. I stopped after five intense minutes, opened my spray skirt in the front, and started pumping again. With my butt still submerged in water, we decided to paddle for a small beach on the other side of the bay. Having returned to a safe situation (kayaking a floating boat) and clear of the point, my body senses came back to remind me of the abdominal workout and push up sets I had done the previous day. Every new stroke seemed to pull more on my abdominal muscles. My shoulders, and triceps were equally sore. As I watched Dave make his way between the rocks enclosing the narrow beach, I stopped to pump some more water out. I felt it would be easier to maneuver between the rocks, would a wave break when landing. I made it to the beach without further incident.
We stopped at a little café by some bungalows to drink a couple of cokes, rest and reflect on the events of the last hour and a half. It was quite an experience and we both learned a lot. Dave gained a better understanding of Feathercraft kayaks (which I still believe are the best crafts for CASKE 2000), and I learned a few lessons. The first one is that it is much easier to eskimo roll than to re-enter a boat after a wet exit. The second one is that in light of the fact that our boats have no airtight bulkheads, it is necessary to use inflatable bags for stern and bow flotation. Other lessons I learned were to securely tie everything in the boat. I had read about it, but didnt think that my sea sock would ever get dislodged from the end of the bow. I also thought that my pump was secured. Maybe it was but in the wrong place. Perhaps I accidentally untied it with my legs while trying the cowboy scramble. Quickly emptying a kayak is very important. The bilge pump just cannot handle the work fast enough. A large bucket fixed on deck with a bungy cord would have been more appropriate and would have saved me both time and energy.
Today, in just a couple of hours, I learned much about my kayak, the sea and myself. All the swimming practice I had done in the last months helped me remain confident until the last minute. I knew that I could clear the point and make the two kilometer swim in the waves to Nai Harn beach without any problem. The kayak on the other hand would have been lost. We paddled back to Rawai before dusk with a strong tailwind. I did put on my sea sock to avoid deja-vu. In spite of the use of a rudder, I felt like my kayak wasnt responding to my command. With the tailwind strengthening, we got some good surfing on rolling waves, but kept having to sweepstroke to keep the boats straight. We arrived in the dark under a torrential rain. After a good shower, we met in front of a dish of grilled chicken dipped in sweet and spicy sauce accompanied with sticky rice. We celebrated my first successful roll and a good workout for the day. There are four more months before the start of CASKE 2000 and I know that I will need all that time to improve my kayaking skills, seamanship and physical condition to be ready.
The rainy season has chased most tourists out of Thailand. I welcome it for the training conditions it provides and Im looking for my next experience on the water with Dave.
Note: Dave Williams is a sea kayak instructor and Guide in Thailand. He organizes expeditions in other South East Asian countries as well. Dave was our instructor during all our training in Thailand. We invite you to check his website at www.paddleasia.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
CASKE 2000 Expedition Journals by Jean-Philippe Soule and Luke Shullenberger