Gray's Canyon, continental slope, WA 21–22 Aug 2021

alexsidles

Paddler
Joined
Jan 10, 2009
Messages
467
Location
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]

Some of my happiest memories have been of close wildlife encounters by kayak: visits to puffin colonies, meetings with various species of whales, face-offs with bears. In a kayak, as opposed to a motorized vehicle, I meet the animals on their terms. What happens next is as much up to them as me.

In search of new wildlife experiences, I paddled out to Gray’s Canyon, a submarine canyon that indents the continental slope off the coast of Washington. Out on the ocean, out of sight of land, I encountered albatrosses, shearwaters, fulmars, jaegers, and other exotic species that are almost never seen from shore, or even from boats that hug the coast. Few kayakers have ever seen these incredible birds, yet here they were by the thousands.

It took twenty-two hours in the kayak to cover the sixty-five miles (104 km) to Gray’s Canyon and back. It would have taken twenty-three, but I capsized in following seas in Gray’s Harbor about two miles short of my launch beach. The ebb current pulled me swiftly onto the Gray’s Harbor bar, where breakers prevented me from climbing back into the kayak.

A commercial fishing boat and, later, a coast guard lifeboat responded to my mayday call and extracted me from the water. In heavy chop on the bar, the fishermen were unable to recover my kayak or gear, losing their own gaff during the attempt. Everything was swept out to sea.

The next morning, a different fishing boat discovered my capsized kayak four miles offshore, but they did not have the capability or duty to recover it. The day after that, one of the coast guard lifeboats did manage to recover the kayak at sea.

My two good cameras were in drybags in the cockpit. They both floated off, so I lost most of my photos, including all my seabird photos. I did have a small, waterproof camera in my lifejacket pocket. Its few photos are all I have left to illustrate the trip.

00 Route map bathy.jpg

00 Route map. Launch at 5:30 PM Saturday, paddle all night to Gray’s Canyon, return to launch beach by 4:30 PM Sunday.

It wasn’t long after launch that I encountered my first seabirds: sooty shearwaters, hundreds of them, later thousands. This small, dark seabird is the one tubenose species that can sometimes be seen from shore. Indeed, I found the first ones inside of the final buoy in the Gray’s Harbor buoy line.

A few miles farther out to sea, but still landward of the continental slope, I began to see our other abundant shearwater species, the pink-footed. These large, pale-bellied birds were curious about my kayak. They swooped past to study me from distances as close as twenty feet, so close I could hear the wind whooshing over their wings.

The shearwaters were expert flyers, as they have to be, since they only ever come ashore to breed. They would skim just inches above the surface of the water between swells, popping up and over each onrushing hill of water in the instant before the wave could catch them.

01 Departing Damon Point by kayak.jpg

01 Departing Damon Point. North jetty to the right, Gray’s Harbor bar to the left.

Late in the afternoon, still more miles from shore, I began to encounter pomarine jaegers, an arctic-breeding species that migrates offshore of Washington on the way to its wintering waters in the tropics and subtropics. Jaegers rarely hunt. Instead, they steal fish from other species, including shearwaters.

As I paddled toward a group of some thirty pink-footed shearwaters resting on the water, two jaegers rose from amid the flock and circled my boat to see if I might be carrying any fish they could steal. They flew off in disgust when they learned I was empty-handed. I was surprised the pink-footed shearwaters would tolerate the presence of two jaegers in their flock. Somehow, they must have known these particular jaegers were not on the hunt.

Just before evening, four more pomarine jaegers appeared out of nowhere and approached my boat head-on, like ground-attack planes setting up for a gun run. Unlike the shearwaters, who wandered across the ocean aimlessly and would only swing by to observe my boat in passing, the jaegers made a deliberate beeline for me. The shearwaters seemed curious; the jaegers seemed predatory. The jaegers veered off at a distance of about sixty feet and flew on to look for easier victims.

02 Alex kayaking out to sea.jpg

02 Alex headed out to sea. On only two or three occasions the entire trip did a motorboat approach close enough that I could hear its engine.

Saturday was the night of the full moon. It had been my deliberate choice to paddle out to Gray’s Canyon during the full moon, the idea being to have moonlight during the passage to see the swells and waves and react accordingly.

It was a clever plan, but in the event, a thick layer of clouds obscured nearly all the moonlight. The horizon was dimly recognizable, but I only had about fifty feet of visibility to the swells. I had to use a headlamp to read my compass card.

The Brunton compass was not well designed for nighttime operation. The glare of the headlamp rendered the compass almost unreadable, yet it was too dark to read the compass without a light. Squinting at the compass card in the glare only ruined my night vision and made me dizzy.

In the end, I navigated by turning off my headlamp and following my GPS with its screen illuminated on the dimmest setting. The downside to this approach was that I had to look down at my lap periodically to check the GPS, which increased my already substantial seasickness.

Seasickness and fatigue were two factors to which I had given some thought before setting out. Each factor tends to increase the other, yet the treatment for each—Bonine for the first, caffeine for the second—increases the other factor even more. I didn’t want to get locked into a medical arms race between seasick tablets making me sleepy and caffeine making me seasick!

I carried eight tablets of Bonine, four Starbucks canned coffees, and two Red Bulls, but I only ended up taking two of the tablets, two of the coffees, and one of the Red Bulls over the course of the entire trip. That was about the right balance. I was seasick enough that I couldn’t keep down any rice pudding but could keep down turkey jerky and water. I was fatigued enough that I needed a short nap but not so fatigued that I couldn’t keep paddling afterward.

03 Evening paddle out to sea.jpg

03 Evening paddle out to sea. Owing to the cloud layers, there was neither a proper sunset nor sunrise.

There was beauty and terror on the ocean at night. Many of the seabirds continued foraging long after dark. Attracted to the deck light mounted behind me to alert fishing boats to my presence, the black shapes of birds would whip out of the darkness past my head. Sometimes they mistook the splashes of my paddles for the splashes of fish, and they would plunge into the water right next to my boat.

From time to time, I would encounter whole flocks of seabirds roosting on the water. Their contact calls filled the air from every direction, but from the sound alone, I could never tell where the flock was or how to avoid it until I was already in the birds’ midst. At a distance of thirty feet or less, my headlamp illuminated the birds’ eyes, the only part of them I could see.

Caught like deer in the spotlight, the birds would wait until the last possible second to scramble out of the way, and not always in the right direction. One pink-footed shearwater jumped toward my boat instead of away from it and slammed bodily against the hull. I had to stay my paddling while the birds sorted themselves out, to avoid striking any with my paddle.

Seabirds were not the only creatures abroad on the ocean. Humpback whales appeared periodically through the day and night. During the day, I was thrilled to hear their breaths, although more often than not I was unable to catch sight of them due to rise and fall of the swell. At night, of course, I could only hear them, poofing and puffing from various directions.

One began puffing a little too loudly. From my dozens of encounters with humpback whales over the years, I have a sense for how loud they sound when they are too close for comfort. In the middle of the night, with the moon at its most thickly obscured, a whale began breathing dangerously close to me, first on one side of the kayak, then on the other. I banged my paddle on the hull to alert it to my presence and put on a burst of speed.

Two hundred yards farther on, I dropped back to cruising speed to catch my breath, only for the whale to surface directly in my path, so close I could see the spout. In this darkness, I had at most fifty feet of visibility, so to see the spout meant the whale was closer to me than that. At my cruising speed of four miles per hour, I would collide with it in a matter of seconds!

I shouted one of the words one shouts when one comes abruptly face to face with disaster. I cranked the kayak over as hard as I could, banged the hull even harder, shouted at the top of my lungs, and put on another, longer, faster burst of speed. The whale came up once more closely on my right side, then disappeared and was not heard from again.

Out near the edge of the continental shelf, I entered a field of bioluminescence. Usually, bioluminescence looks green to me, but out here, the organisms seemed to be glowing bright magenta. They coated the blades of my paddles in glowing spots. When I trailed my hands in the water, my hands came up speckled with glow, as if I were under some kind of enchantment. I could even chart the streaking movements of fish beneath the surface by watching magenta flashes in the water.

I reached Gray’s Canyon shortly after two o’clock in the morning, having paddled thirty-two miles in nine hours. It would be several hours until dawn, but my departure had been dictated by the timing of the ebb in Gray’s Harbor. There was nothing for it but to try to catch some sleep. I rigged a paddle float outrigger and dozed fitfully. My waking thoughts invaded my dreams, and I thought about my dreams while awake. I tried again to eat some rice pudding but could not keep it down.

A few hours later, the predawn cold woke me the rest of the way up. The moon had not yet set, but nautical twilight was already glowing to the east. It was time to chum.

04 Dawn at Grays Canyon.jpg

04 Dawn at Gray's Canyon. Not until the sun finally broke through the clouds was it bright enough to make sense of my surroundings.

Chumming is a time-honored practice of birders. On so-called pelagic trips, in which birders charter motorboats to take them out to the continental slope to see the same bird species I’d been seeing, the birders spread fish oil and fish parts on the water to attract seabirds. Most seabirds, unlike most terrestrial birds, have excellent senses of smell, and the ones that don’t follow the ones that do.

Chumming is guaranteed to bring in the birds, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. The internet is full of recipes and advice concerning such important chum considerations as buoyancy, odor, shelf life, attractiveness, availability, and cost.

Do not imagine, says the internet sternly, that you can simply buy a frozen fish fillet from the grocery store and toss it into the water. You fool, frozen fish sinks! Now you’ve come all this way only to lose your chum in the first three seconds! If you want to freeze your chum, you must freeze it in a block of freshwater ice to keep it afloat.

I sourced my chum from the Ballard fish market, where they sold me a ten-pound bag of fish parts for five dollars. After much thought, I froze it two separate, five-pound chunks for portability but did not freeze it in freshwater ice. Instead, I packed a large mesh laundry bag.

When the moment arrived, I stuffed the fish into the laundry bag and tied it to my decklines. It sank about two feet beneath the surface to the end of the line. It released enough blood and oil that the seabirds appeared almost instantly and began circling my boat. Some of the fork-tailed storm-petrels flew within inches of my bow in their excitement.

Naturally, I was worried about the man in the gray suit. Great white sharks are rare in Washington, but they are present, and the coast off Gray’s Harbor is where they are most numerous. On a normal kayaking trip, I wouldn’t spare a thought for sharks, but of all the schemes you could possibly devise to invite a great white shark attack in Washington, probably the most promising would be to float on the edge of the continental shelf, attached to a ten-pound bag of bloody fish parts.

In recognition of my peculiar circumstances, I took the uncustomary precaution of packing a .45 automatic, just to let any miscreant shark know what time it is. When a shark attack actually came, however, it was nothing like what I expected.

I was looking up at the sky, admiring the nearby passage of a Buller’s shearwater, the most handsome of our tubenoses and the only member of this species I saw on this trip, when I heard a gentle splash in the water next to me. At first, I thought maybe one of the tiny storm-petrels had flown too close and hit the water in its eagerness to get at the fish bag, but when I looked beneath the surface, there was a bright blue shark ripping at the bag!

Blue, yes, electric blue. A shark it was for sure, but not a great white. Rather, this was a blue shark, Prionace glauca, so named for its dazzling color.

The blue shark had a spanking white belly, a fact I observed when it rolled onto its back, the better to attack my fish bag. In truth, this was not a very large shark, six feet in length, maybe seven or eight at most. In any case, certainly no longer than fifteen to twenty feet in length, maybe a little more.

Whatever its true size, it was more shark than I was prepared to handle at five o’clock in the morning. I cut the fish bag loose and paddled away as fast I could.

At no time was I tempted to draw my pistol on the shark. I wouldn’t use lethal force on a wild animal except in an absolute extremity, such as if a great white shark were biting my kayak. It is also the case that, in all the excitement, I forgot I had the pistol until after I had already escaped.

The birds were even more active in the morning than they had been the afternoon prior. I picked up some classic species that I had been hoping to see, including the northern fulmar and the lovely striped Sabine’s gull. I even had a distant view of two black-footed albatrosses, visiting our waters after breeding in Hawaii.

I was only able to use binoculars on one percent or fewer of the birds, because I needed to keep my hands on the paddle most of the time to control the boat in the ever-surging swell and waves. Undoubtedly, I missed some species due to this limitation. For example, without binoculars, I could not distinguish short-tailed shearwaters from sooty shearwaters, so I cannot list short-tailed even though they were undoubtedly present.

There had been a small craft advisory for the offshore waters during most of the period I was at sea. However, the forecast zones for the ocean cover wide areas, and this particular advisory had been generated due to a large, stationary high-pressure system far out to sea. By monitoring the ocean buoy reports and the wind models, I had estimated that winds would be mild out to thirty miles, and this proved to be correct. Winds rarely exceeded five knots, and only hit fifteen knots for a ten-minute period as I was re-entering the Gray’s Harbor bar.

05 Kayaking Grays Harbor bar.jpg

05 Crossing the Gray’s Harbor bar. Conditions were light during the tail end of the flood. They would soon worsen.

The Gray’s Harbor bar is a notorious danger zone, particularly during the ebb. The coast guard publishes a two-page instructional pamphlet on crossing the bar, featuring seven different mapped “danger areas” that basically cover the whole harbor. The trick with the bar is that the ocean swells are always trying to enter, so whenever there is an ebb tide trying to leave, steep, breaking waves are the result of the conflict between the two waters.

My original plan was to enter the bar at the tail end of the afternoon ebb, when conditions would be settling. However, I made such faster progress than I expected that I was actually in a position to catch the tail end of the preceding afternoon flood, which would give me a helpful push into the harbor and save me several hours of waiting out the next ebb.

The danger to this new plan was that if I were still on the water when the ebb began, the ebb would retard my forward progress (bad news) and subject me to steep breakers from the swell (worse news). So I would have to hurry.

I crossed the bar without any difficult and hugged the north jetty about a hundred yards out. When the ebb came on, it was much stronger than I had seen in the current tables. Instead of 1.5 knots as expected, it was more like 2.5 knots, almost faster than I could paddle through the swells. It’s possible the current nearest the jetty may have accelerated around the bend at the jetty’s east end, a phenomenon I have observed in other places where a point of land protrudes into a current.

The following seas were building as the ebb increased. Sliding down the backside of each swell, my forward progress would drop to zero. I could only progress on the forward face of each swell. I was, in effect, stationary at the time each swell hit me from behind.

In these conditions, it was only a matter of minutes before a breaker hit me at an awkward angle—I never even saw the one that did it—and flipped me over. It was not a sudden, sharp blow; I had fielded hundreds of those over the course of the last two days. Rather, it was a building, inexorable push. I did not realize until too late that this was one was different from all the others, that a little countervailing lean of the boat was not going to right the situation this time.

I don’t know how to roll a kayak, and this was no place to learn. I popped up next to the boat and righted it. The breaking swells filled the cockpit full of water and knocked it back upside down almost instantly. This happened several more times over the next minutes until I gave it up as a bad job and got on the radio for help.

Several boats responded immediately, butß there was some confusion as to my location. I described my location as “north jetty, at the east end of the jetty.” That was accurate from my point of view, but there is also a submerged jetty that extends over a mile east of the visible jetty where people can walk. I was aware of the submerged jetty—indeed, I planned to slip through a gap in the breakwater to obtain shelter from the breakers—but it did not occur to me that other boaters listening to my call, including the coast guard, thought I was at the east end of that structure. The confusion delayed my rescue.

A cabin cruiser found me first, but by now, I had been carried most of the way back out to sea, onto the Gray’s Harbor bar. Conditions here were even worse than off the jetty, and much worse than when I had crossed the bar so easily just half an hour earlier. The cabin cruiser had a swim ladder, but its crew were frightened of broaching in the turbulent bar conditions, so they did not approach.

They did rely my position to the coast guard, which was helpful because my radio stopped transmitting after my first ten or so calls. Its battery was still full, and I could still receive, but I found out later my transmissions first became muffled and then ceased altogether. I believe the microphone may have become waterlogged due to the breakers surging over it, an undesirable vulnerability for a “waterproof” radio. The model was a Standard Horizon HX 300, just in case you were wondering which marine radio should not be your next purchase.

Next on the scene was a commercial fishing boat. Its crewmen, fresh off a voyage to Homer, Alaska, were less daunted by the heavy chop than the yachties had been. They threw me a lifering and hauled me over the rail, a two-man job because of the water that had leaked into my drysuit.

The fishermen then attempted to recover my kayak and the various pieces of gear that were floating alongside it, but the conditions were too rough, and they eventually lost their own gaff in the waves. The coast guard lifeboat came up and escorted us back to the dock in Westport.

06 Rescue diagram.jpg

06 Rescue diagram. One hour earlier or three hours later, and conditions would have been much easier.

A coast guardsman loaned me a set of dry clothes and gave me some water and an energy bar. I had just had the presence of mind to grab the drybox containing my wallet, keys, and phone before it floated away, so I was able to call a cab to take me all the way around Gray’s Harbor back to my car.

Back at home, I began the long battle with my insurance company over whether a kayak is a “vessel” and whether a capsize is a “covered risk” and whether my insurance company is staffed by “jerks.” The insurance company is Allstate, just in case you were wondering which carrier should not be your next purchase.

I had tremendous support from everyone in Gray’s Harbor during the rescue. The fishermen were extraordinarily competent mariners and brave, too, placing themselves at some risk on the bar to try to get back my boat. The coast guardsmen were all extremely professional, helpful, and kind. Even the tourists onshore who called 9-1-1 did exactly the right thing within their capabilities.

It would have been difficult or impossible to recover on my own amid the choppy conditions on the bar, so it is likely that the community’s response saved my life. I am grateful, too, that the coast guard was able to recover my kayak two days later. It is not their duty to recover gear adrift, but exceeding expectations is a way of life for them.

07 Kayak adrift.jpg

07 Kayak adrift, U.S. Coast Guard photograph. The kayak appears to have had a rough couple of days at sea. The bow hatch has popped off, exposing the float bag in the compartment; one half of my spare paddle is missing; my main paddle has broken free of its leash, which is trailing in the water. Amazingly, my deck light and pistol are still attached!

Notwithstanding the disastrous end, it was still a magnificent trip. Since the advent of the internal combustion engine, few people have experienced the wild birds of the ocean in as personal way as this.

I had hoped to encounter something of what Ed Gillet did when he described the ocean as a landscape full of places, each as distinct as “the places that are more obviously marked on land with roads, signs, sentinel trees, or mountains.” I had hoped to find something like the Micronesian navigators’ “seamarks,” places on the ocean that one can recognize by their special characteristics (pwukof) or, more subtly, by their geometrical relationship to other, known landmarks (etak).

I encountered no such things. Even on the canyon, I did not notice anything different about the waves or even the color of the water. When I tried to navigate at night using only the direction of the swells, I began disoriented, confusing the primary swell with the smaller secondary. Perhaps I lack the sensitivity for such delicate natural observations, or perhaps I simply haven’t yet spent enough time at sea.

For now, it is enough to be back on land, safe at home with my beloved wife and children.

Alex

[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]
 
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chodups

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Nov 2, 2005
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Holy Buckets, Alex! I'm glad that you are safe and sound. What an experience! Mind blower!

Your report is a great read and was banged out more quickly than I could have processed and reported such an experience had it been mine.

Thank you for providing us with the blow-to-blow picture.

Tell me, which radio will be your next and who will you advise we look to for insurance?
 
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CPS

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What an adventure! I'm glad you're safe but what a saga. You're a braver man than I by a longshot.

After all that, would you do it again?
 

cougarmeat

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Bend OR USA
Webster’s Dictionary: Epic, see AlexSidles

Oops, looks like John beat me to it.
What a great lesson is handling adversity - keep going forward and making the best decision at the time. definitely a “reread” to imagine myself in the same situation. Also note that “secure on deck” is kind of an oxymoron.
 

alexsidles

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Jan 10, 2009
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Seattle WA
Thanks for the kind words, everyone! I'll answer folks' question first, then provide an update.

Jon: I'm not sure what radio would have been better. I had an Icom M-88 fail on me about ten years ago, and Icom were not good about repairing it. Incidentally, the repaired M-88 failed a year later in exactly the same way, so I gave up on Icom. I'm not sure where to go now that I've lost confidence in the Standard Horizon HX-300. Some of the Icom models have a function where the speaker vibrates in an attempt to drain water, but I'm not sure whether that actually does anything...plus I don't want to go back to Icom. As for insurance, who knows? Now that I've gotten my boat back, the value of my claim is much smaller. If Allstate screws me on such a small claim, I'll probably switch to USAA, which has a better reputation anyway.

Pascal: This will not be my last ocean trip. There are still many amazing things out there I want to see. The seemingly unusual aspects of this trip—the overnight paddling, the long mileage, the distance from land—were actually quite straightforward. The ocean part was the easy part. The danger occurred in crossing the Gray's Harbor bar too early in an attempt to beat the ebb. I was under no illusions that I could handle the bar during an ebb. My plan was to try to get past the bar before the ebb began. Google Earth reveals I came within half a mile of making it, but in the end, I needed to arrive at the bar just a few minutes earlier than I did, or else wait outside the bar for several hours for the ebb to subside.

John JKA: I actually tried to take a rolling class prior to this trip, which would have been my first-ever kayaking class of any description. Unfortunately, most rolling classes in Seattle are shut down due to coronavirus. The one company still offering classes couldn't fit me in. However, I don't think a lack of roll was the problem. The problem was paddling on the bar during an ebb. With a roll, I might have survived my first capsize, but I still would have been in the same untenable position as before the capsize: making almost zero forward progress, with constant following seas breaking on me from behind, no possible landing to redirect (only a stone jetty), much rougher conditions on the bar behind me foreclosing any retreat, and about three hours to go before the ebb would subside. Under these circumstances, I predict I would have capsized multiple times. It's hard to imagine rolling successfully over and over for several hours in rough seas while battling the current. The real problem was not a lack of a roll, but an unsuccessful (albeit calculated) attempt to beat the ebb. Once I was caught on the bar during the ebb, there were no good options. Forward? Impossible due to current. Backward? Goes back across the bar in worse conditions than here. Left? A jetty of enormous boulders being hammered by breakers. Right? Goes three miles across Gray's Harbor in beam seas full of breakers.

John Abercrombie: All three gaskets on my drysuit are blown. I tried to send it to Kokotat for repair last year, but they were closed due to coronavirus. In twenty minutes in the water, I took on about five gallons (19 L), adding about forty pounds (18 kg) to my weight. I was still "light" enough for two burly fishermen to hoist me over the rail, but if I'd been in the water too much longer, I'd have had to slash the drysuit legs to drain the water. At eleven years old, the drysuit is nearing the end of its service life anyway, so cutting it open during a rescue would not be too grievous a loss.

Paul: I would rather have saved any of the following: my two good cameras, my binoculars, or my two paddles; but the one expensive thing that did survive on deck was the pistol, the most useless item in the boat! Secure in its drybag on deck, it came through with just a few drops of seawater after more than 36 hours at sea, in conditions that not only ripped everything else off the deck but also popped open one of the hatches!

Updates: I drove down to Westport this morning and picked up my kayak from the coast guard. The boat suffered some minor damage to the decklines, and the skeg toggle switch broke, although the skeg cable itself is fine. It's hard to imagine what combination of oceanic forces could cause the toggle switch to break. I suspect the kayak may have banged against the side of the coast guard's lifeboat during recovery, not that I am in any way criticizing the coast guard, who have been nothing short of amazing!

My float bags contributed to keeping the boat afloat when the front hatch popped off, so that is gratifying. My flashlight and flares and stuff all came through unscathed in their drybags inside the day hatch. I recovered the wool hat my wife made me!

To thank everybody who contributed to my rescue, I distributed the following:
  • To the coast guardsmen on the lifeboat: a letter of thanks addressed to their commanding officer.
  • To the fishermen who pulled me out of the water: a bottle of very expensive bourbon left outside the cabin of their boat.
  • To my wife: a bouquet of flowers.
Alex
 

JohnAbercrombie

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Victoria, BC
John Abercrombie: All three gaskets on my drysuit are blown. I tried to send it to Kokotat for repair last year, but they were closed due to coronavirus. At eleven years old, the drysuit is nearing the end of its service life anyway, so cutting it open during a rescue would not be too grievous a loss.
Alex-
Replacing gaskets is not a difficult DIY job; I'm sure you would find it straightforward.
You can buy excellent gaskets at a very reasonable price from seaskin.co.uk .
https://seaskin.co.uk/product-category/replacement-and-repair-parts/seals-and-spare-parts/
Get a tube of Aquaseal locally, watch a few youtube videos and in a couple of hours spread over two or three sessions the job will be done.
A wetsuit is a lot better than a drysuit with a tear or bad gaskets - I think the Tsunami Rangers used mostly wetsuits for that reason(?).

Do you think sleep deprivaton affected your decisions at the end of the trip?
 
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RickMcMinn

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Mar 29, 2021
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Wow! Amazing story. Glad all turned out ok for you. Much respect to you, Coast Guard and Alaska Fisherman.
FYI, for Seattle area paddlers: A gasket on my wife's drysuit was torn. I was heading east one morning and stopped to drop it off at Kayak Academy https://www.kayakacademy.com/pages/drysuit-guide figuring they could mail it back to us. They weren't busy and repaired it while I waited. That probably doesn't always happen but it's a local alternative to sending it back to Kotatat.
 

Peter-CKM

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Dec 1, 2011
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San Francisco, CA
Second @JohnAbercrombie 's suggestion on the place in the UK for gasket repalcement parts, if you want to do them youyrself. Replacing gaskets does not void the warranty with Kokatat.

Sounds like you may be hard on gaskets, so perhaps consider getting the neo neck gasket instead of a latex one. I switched an old dry suit over to this and it keeps me basically dry (couple of drops per roll sneak through, though people with less large necks may not seal as well). Much more comfortable. I do still sue latex for wrists, as these are pretty easy to replace (easier for me than neck). I use an old Nalgene bottle as the form, as it is just about the right size (and I can store the gasket parts inside it between repairs.

For having the gaskets replaced, along with Kayak Academy, I'd check with Alder Creek, if they are closer.

Question for you - how do you handle taking a dump (as in going to the bathroom) in your kayak from a dry suit without going to shore? Relief zipper and bottle and I can take a leak, but have no idea how to handle number 2.
 
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PhotoMax

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Sep 5, 2019
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Location
Orcas Island, WA
Wow!

This story has almost too many details to comprehend.

I am reading Deep Trouble by George Gronseth who owns the Kayak Academy. Take your suit to him (he will determine if the suit is too old or repairable) in Issaquah and tell him your story. He is an encylopedia of kayaking survival stories…
 
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JKA

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Jul 25, 2016
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Location
Banks Peninsula, New Zealand
Alex, I love your honest self-reflection on this event; you will simply be a better paddler in the future. As will the rest of us who have been given the opportunity to learn - vicariously - from your sharing.

Using the power of Google Earth I've had a look at your area of adventure and I see what you mean about your options once you were in the middle of the maelstrom. Ugly either way.

You will be working through the things you experienced and learned, and some of these are software (knowledge, skill, etc) and some hardware (VHF, drysuit, etc). As humans we seem good at buying hardware but often struggle to find the motivation to improve our software. I don't believe that this applies in your case, from your past postings, but a reminder to us all.

On hardware, did you have a PLB, and if so did you consider using it? If your VHF had died earlier or the cabin cruiser hadn't found you, how difficult would you have been to locate? It sounds like you were still with your kayak, was that a challenge in the sea conditions?

Given that you were sleep deprived, sea sick and tired, you did a great job of holding it all together when 'the rubber met the road'.

Cheers

John
 

glcwhistler

Paddler
Joined
Dec 8, 2010
Messages
50
Alex,
I was blown away by just looking at the map of where you traveled out into the ocean, then, to read the rest of the story was beyond insane.
Can I ask? How do you get those cojones of yours into the kayak and still have room to sit? I was more than impressed by your trip across Juan De Fuca and back, but this excursion blows that out of the water.
You never fail to impress and you are one of the biggest reasons why I keep checking WCP to see what you are up to. I am glad you are safe and you got your boat back.
I was telling my wife about this and she was blown away by it, though, she did mention that she would be selling the kayak if she was married to you. Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned it? I still want to paddle the inside passage up to Alaska from here in Kirkland, stories like this don't help my cause.
Thank you for sharing your adventures with us all.

And.. From now on, I am going to call you 'Ironman'.

Greg
 

alexsidles

Paddler
Joined
Jan 10, 2009
Messages
467
Location
Seattle WA
Thanks again, everyone, for yet more kind words. I regret that the capsize has become everyone's focus, because the capsize was relatively insignificant compared to the trip to Gray's Canyon. Kayaks capsize in Gray's Harbor on a regular basis (2020 incident, 2019 incident), but kayaks almost never head out to the continental shelf. My capsize occurred less than one hundred yards from the north jetty, close enough that I could hear onlookers shouting. Compared to the ocean trip, the capsize was, I almost hesitate to say, not that big a deal.

It is true that without rescue, I likely would have died after a few hours in the water. However, it is also true, as I will discuss below in response to folks' further questions, that rescue was never in doubt. Even when I was in the breakers, unable to get back into my boat, I did not experience any fear that I would die. Instead, I experienced confidence that I would be rescued. If memory serves, I even indulged in a moment's humor over the radio when one of the stations asked for a description of my overturned kayak: "Well, it's an upside-down kayak, I'm pretty sure I'm the only one."

John Abercrombie: I don't think sleep deprivation was a factor in my decision-making. I was still ten or fifteen miles out to sea when I realized I was making fast enough progress that I might be able to beat the ebb across the bar, rather than wait three or four hours for the ebb to subside. I had plenty of time to weigh the risks in going for it, and I made a deliberate decision to try. The main factor in my decision to go for it was my belief, based on current tables, that the ebb on the edges of Gray's Harbor would only run 1.6 knots. As I mentioned in the trip report, the actual current at the elbow of the jetty was substantially higher. The stronger current not only slowed my progress, thereby subjecting to me to more of the building ebb; it also resulted in higher, steeper breakers.

Another factor in my decision to try to beat the ebb was the likelihood of rescue in the unlikely event of a capsize. Gray's Harbor was full of boats. There is a coast guard station with lifeboats just three miles from the north jetty. There is also a coast guard air station just fifty-five miles away (a fifteen-minute flight for a Jayhawk helicopter). There were people watching me from shore with cell phones. Under these circumstances, I believed I was very likely to survive any accident. Of course, it was not my plan to have an accident—it was my plan to make it to sheltered water east of the north jetty prior to the ebb. Google Earth reveals I came within half a mile of making it. If I had arrived on the bar even fifteen minutes earlier, I would have made it to safety before the ebb began. However, it is true that I had more confidence taking a chance on timing knowing there was abundant assistance very close by.

Peter: Bathroom questions were some of the most common Ed Gillett faced upon his return from paddling to Hawaii. I sense such questions were a factor in his decision to stop speaking to media, because he felt such questions miss the point of ocean kayaking. However, I know you are an experienced sea kayaker who is asking because of the practical implications for your own kayaking! So, I will tell you: I didn't. For twenty-two hours, I just held everything...and I mean everything. I did not even use the nursing-home style urinal I brought. Surprisingly, this feat of endurance did not require any effort on my part. I simply didn't have to go. I think I must have been consumed by the constant stress of navigating and boat-handling in such a dynamic environment.

John JKA: I am not usually a big one for gear or gear talk, but I will make an exception for a trip of this magnitude. For safety and signaling, I carried:
  • One Standard Horizon HX-300 radio;
  • One Uniden MH-5125 radio;
  • One Ocean Signal RecueMe personal locator beacon (PLB);
  • One iPhone in a waterproof pelican case;
  • One Falcon Safety Sonic Blast air horn;
  • Two Orion SOLAS red parachute signal rockets (1,000 ft altitude!);
  • Four Orion handheld red flares;
  • One Garmin GPSMap 78 with extra AA batteries;
  • One Paddlers Supply Co. LED deck light with suction cup base;
  • One Fenix HM50R LED headlamp with extra CR123 batteries;
  • One Werner carbon fiber paddle;
  • One Werner fiberglass paddle;
  • One North Water coiled paddle leash;
  • One Seattle Sports inflatable paddle float;
  • One Seattle Sports handheld bilge pump;
  • One Kokatat GMER drysuit (with blown gaskets);
  • One Kokatat Outfit Tour lifejacket;
  • One Springfield XD .45 automatic with 13-round magazine and LED flashlight.
Of all this mountain of stuff, I only used the Standard Horizon to send a mayday call and, later, the Garmin GPS to relay my position when it became apparent that "north jetty, east end of the jetty" was too ambiguous. As I mentioned in the trip report, the Standard Horizon radio eventually stopped transmitting. However, I still wasn't tempted to use my PLB or flares or horn or cell phone or even my backup radio (or shoot my gun!), because rescue was already well underway by the time the Standard Horizon radio failed. Frankly, given the fact that tourists on the jetty witnessed the capsize and immediately called 9-1-1, I likely would have been rescued even if I had taken no action at all.

Staying with the boat was something of a challenge due to the breakers. It's actually how I lost my binoculars, cameras, and other deck gear. I simply didn't have enough hands to hold the boat, work the radio, read the GPS, and save the gear adrift. A DSC-equipped VHF might have spared me the need to read the GPS, but only if DSC was able to timely to transmit a signal that the coast guard's Rescue 21 system was able to interpret. Reading the GPS was less graceful but perhaps more reliable; I don't really know.

By the way, don't tell the FCC, but I did a little testing of the Standard Horizon at home today. I didn't re-charge the radio's batteries but I did rinse and dry the unit. It now transmits perfectly. This heightens my suspicion that the microphone became unusable due to waterlogging during the incident. That's IPX8 waterproofing for you! "Submersible to 1.5 meters for thirty minutes!"

Alex
 

benson

Paddler
Joined
Aug 28, 2011
Messages
119
Location
Sequim, Wa
Another great report on an amazing adventure....always a fun read. I had seen this on another link, but checked WCP figuring the reply stream would be open and informative. I have always admired Alex's passion, sense of adventure, and preparation on his paddling trips and appreciate the openness and willingness to share the detail...good and bad. A trip of this magnitude...well beyond my scope...certainly brought to mind the "element of risk" involved. Our paddle club is a stickler on safety and hypothermia and being totally responsible for your own safety. I'm sure the "dressing for immersion" issue will be revisited. It's just too critical. Whether it's a wetsuit or drysuit you can't ignore your gear. I reflected on Chris Duff...his paddling adventures which I'm sure most all of you have read. The last presentation of his a few years back was following the rescue on his last Northern Reach rowing venture...very emotional from a waterman who seemed to have a limitless sense of adventure. I don't want this to be a "downer", but thinking about the family, I had to say it. We want you safe out there...and many future trip reports!
 

AlphaEcho

Paddler
Joined
Jan 24, 2010
Messages
156
Location
Quadra Island, BC
I'm sure I'm not the only one thinking about the contrast in expectations of safety -- the open ocean was more manageable than accessing the safety of the harbor. Thank-you for your report and candid follow-up comments.
 
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