Lessons Learnt: How a routine commute led to capsize

4 January 2018

In October, a well-prepared paddler was undertaking his regular 4.5km commute home by sea-kayak from Stony Point to French Island when his vessel capsized.

The wind was gusting to 29 knots from the WSW. Twenty minutes into his trip the sea-kayak was capsized by a wave and he was unable to roll back upright.

The regular ferry service passed within 300m of his position while he was in the water, however he was unable to gain their attention.

He was unable to get back on, so attempted to swim the kayak to land – he only activated his personal locator beacon (PLB) when he thought that he might not make it.

Stony Point

Timeline

  • 5:48pm: Departed Stony Point, paddling SE in lee of the land
  • 6:00pm: Turned to the East in following seas
  • 6:09pm: Fell out halfway to French Island - stayed with sea-kayak kicking it towards French Island at slow speed until he thought he might succumb to the cold.
  • 6:31pm: Beacon Alert received by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Canberra- owner details and emergency contact information gathered while the beacon’s position was determined.
  • 6:40pm: Position determined by satellite & emergency contact advised of situation.
  • 6:44pm Water Police contacted by the JRCC in Canberra.
  • 6:49pm Air Ambulance was tasked by the JRCC to respond.
  • 7:09pm Air Ambulance airborne and en route to last known location.
  • Two Marine Search & Rescue vessels were tasked by the Water Police and a resident of the island also launched his own boat to assist with the search.
  • 7:43pm the Air Ambulance located the paddler in the shallows of French Island. Body temperature 30.5 deg. Having spent more than an hour in the cold water until he was seen near shore by the helicopter crew, he was transferred to hospital suffering from hypothermia.

Stony Point capsize map

We spoke to the man after the ordeal about what went wrong despite his usual precautions.

Trip preparation

  • He had practised self rescue techniques including eskimo rolls and deep water re-entries.
  • He wears a lifejacket and carries a phone in a waterproof pouch, GPS-enabled PLB and radar reflector on his kayak.
  • He had recently purchased a portable VHF radio, but it was not on board because the battery was flat.
  • He always lets his partner know his trip plans, and she was able to track the journey by his phone’s GPS.
  • He had considered an up to date forecast, and wind conditions matched the expected 25-28 knots W/SW. However, the weather and sea conditions were beyond his capability.

After capsize

  • His lifejacket supported him in the water both while he attempted to re-enter the sea-kayak and while kicking towards the shore.
  • His waterproof phone pouch failed because it had degraded over time.
  • The regular ferry passed him by without sighting him in the water and he had no means to gain their attention.
  • Due to poor positioning of the PLB whilst the kayaker was in the water, there were intermittent gaps between PLB detections. However, as the location had already been determined, this did not affect the response time.

Lessons learnt

Know your limits and be prepared.

When in an emergency you should call for help as early as possible. It is important to note that the most effective way of communicating your situation is via verbal communications for instance radio communications or a mobile phone. Any delay may result in a less than favourable outcome.

Having multiple ways of calling or signalling for help will cover more than one situation. Sometimes alerting those in the near vicinity provides a quicker outcome than waiting for a rescue to be coordinated from afar.

PLBs require direct line of sight with the satellites to ensure detection, therefore positioning of the PLB is critical. Unlike an EPIRB, a PLB is not designed to float upright in the water. Instead, a PLB should be attached to the upper portion of your lifejacket, so that it is above water with the aerial pointing vertically towards the sky.

A pea-less whistle may be effective in raising the attention of people who are nearby. There are personal rocket flares as well as rocket flares and smoke flares that can be used by paddlers if there are other boaters, planes or land based people within visual range.

A paddle float adds to the stability of your craft if you are having trouble getting back on board or back inside in choppy conditions.

High-vis hats and high-vis lifejackets or flags will assist in collision avoidance – but will also assist searchers if they are looking for a person or kayak in difficult conditions.

Read more about paddling safety at transportsafety.vic.gov.au/msv/paddling