During a ten day tour in the Swedish west coast archipelago, my kayak was badly damaged in a capsize over a shoal. This is what happened...
On the third day, a tour to Väderöarna was planned - these are a small group of remote islets some 6 miles offshore. The weather forecast was OK (10 knot southwesterly) for most of the day, increasing to 20 knop late evening, so we started from the outmost island after breakfast and was at Storön (the largest of the islets) after approx an hour and a half. The group of nine were competent sea paddlers, well trained in rescue methods. It was a wonderful day with sun blazing from a blue sky and no visual indication of a weather change. The group was scattered over the islets after lunch for sunning and swimming and the departure was delayed far longer than planned.
From the start the wind had increased slightly and we had a five ft swell the first miles. Halfway the wind started to increase rapidly and the swell was soon up to almost ten ft. Still no cause for worry - nobody had any problems with the wind or waves. The main problem was keeping everybody in sight since we disappeared in the troughs every now and then.
The plan was to turn left to find lee behind a chain of small islets for the rest of the passage, but in the rising swell it turned out some of the members hesitated to take waves this size from aft, and therefore continued on the course, forcing us to follow to keep the group together (communication was extremely difficult with the other not beeing in sight more than seconds and the wind by then approx 25 knot). I looked at the map and aimed for a gap between two of the islets a mile away.
Somewhat surprising the waves were higher and steeper when we got to the gap (a combination of shallowing and a current that we had not noticed out at sea), some of them 13 ft and breaking, so we resumed course once again and looked for another gap - passing south of a shoal with occasionally breaking seas.
At one occasion when I was pausing to count the kayaks (quite an undertaking in those conditions) I was surprised by a wave suddenly breaking close to the kayak, and looking he wrong way over my shoulder at the moment I capsized leewards before getting the paddle in position for a brace. I rolled up immediately but had probably drifted with the current in over the shoal, and the next wave was 13 ft, breaking and looking like a vertical wall of water. Without thinking I throwed the kayak around, stem into the wave, bent forwards, arms around the kayak bottom - in the naive hope that I would spear through the wave and come out on the other side.
Instead I was treated to a breathtakingly quick and shaky somersault backwards, landing upside down in the soup. I rolled up again and started towards the calmer water on the inside of the shoal, but was caught by the next plunger and somersaulted again, this time diagonally over the stem, followed by a series of rapid rolls of which I soon lost count. When I ran out of breath I exited and swam up windward of the kayak (did not want a rotating kayak in my head) with the paddle still in my hand. The first thing I saw when I reached the surface was the stern of my kayak, chopped off as if by a sword and happily surfing away. I realized that it must have hit an edge in the rocky bottom during the first backwards flip.
The rest of the group worked efficiently. One kayak was beside me very soon after the capsize - too soon as it turned out, because it was also overturned in the still chaotic seas. A towline was attached as soon as we reached deeper water inside of the shoal. I kicked off the sprayskirt that hindered my swimming, but unfortunately lost it. One kayak towed us to a small islet, another towed the reminder 4/5 of my waterlogged kayak to the same islet and went searching for the few things that was lost from my kayak, while the rest went scouting for a campsite where we could assess the damage, stay for the night and make plans for the continuation.
After taking some shots of the kayak, I used a little tarp to fill the hole enough to paddle half a mile to the chosen campsite - a small quarry site on an island nearby.
The damages and the makeshift repair
The damages were quickly noted - two feet of tha kayak were missing, and an extra paddle stored in the aft compartment was broken (this was just a spare - the storm paddle stored on deck is my real backup). It took a while to list what was lost from the kayak: a thermos, a water bottle, a paddle jacket, a rain poncho, the charts, a paddle float, a bilge pump and some small wine tetrapacs that happened to be stored in that part of the kayak that decided to go AWOL.
That evening in increasing wind and heavy rain we discussed the rest of the tour - repair and paddling back to the cars. The rain continued through the night, making repairs very difficult. After a good nights sleep, I had to dry the kayak stern over a camping stove in my tiny tent to get it reasonably dry. I folded and rolled the tarp to a tight cone with the broken paddle as spine, stuck it to the stern with yards of duct tape and covered the lot with a plastic garbage bag, forming a watertight stern of approximately the correct shape - lacking only the skeg.
This makeshift stern performed fine for the remaining 6 miles to the place where we had a couple of cars parked. Tracking left something to be desired of course and the lack of a proper sprayskirt made the passage of a couple of exposed and notorious points exciting in the still hard wind.
Then I was really lucky. One of my colleagues, with no vacation left, were supposed to leave and offered to lend me her kayak and taking my wreck back home - incredibly generous, considering the way I had treated my own! So I could continue for another week as if nothing had happened...
- The decision to go for Väderöarna was of course doubtful considering the warnings of increasing wind - but exactly the same warning had been issued for the last three days without ever reaching more than 5 knots, and the weather, sun from a clear blue sky, did not indicate a imminent change.
- Had we suspected the dramatic increase of the wind, a better choice had been to go east and sooner get behind the chain if islets (Vedholmen).
- With better group discipline, we would have left a couple of hours earlier as planned and would have missed the strong winds altogether.
- I am very satisfied that my roll worked perfectly - it was the first time I had been in a real situation...
- I am also glad that i managed to keep the paddle in my hand throughout - I am not fond of lines close to hands, arms and neck.
- The group worked efficiently and competently during the rescue - a positive feedback for all the hours spent on rescue and safety training.
- A couple of weeks prior to the tour some of us had a hilarious day surfing and rolling in 30 knot wind and 7 ft breaking waves on a beach - an unexpectedly appropriate preparation for this tour.
- I think I made a mistake pointing the stem into such a wave. It would probably have been better just rolling under it - with the body anchoring the kayak to stop it being swept along on the wave front.
- I am surprised that I got so close to the shoal in the first place, believing I had a good margin. But probably the current gained speed in the shallowing confined waters and I was swept sideways faster than I noticed, occupied as I was with counting colleagues to see that all were there and right side up.
- In spite of having a no-bulkhead kayak, nothing that were stored in the kayak was lost (except the wine that followed the stern). Everything that was lost was stored on deck or in the cockpit.
- I do not think bulkheads would have made any significant difference in this case. The fore compartment would have been dry, but with the rest of the hull waterlogged, the kayak would have been impossible to handle in those conditions. And the weakening of the deck around hatches might have lead to far worse structural damage to the hull.
- The towing systems used were of a common commercially available type with a plastic clip that failed under the stress. After having deformed and opened three times I had to knot the nylon ribbing directly to the stem fitting. Those clips have later been replaced by steel ones.
Home again the kayak was lifted into the workshop for some reconstructive surgery - a major job since I had to separate the deck and hull to reach the inside. Furthermore I had to attach two of the station molds to a partial strongback to get the proper shape for the new tail piece. The strips I had available were of a different width than those used at building, so the scarfing looks a bit odd. I did not mind showing off the repair, since I have an interest in showing the toughness of a strip hull and also how easy it is to repair. I may have overdone it in some of the patches - but the kayak became a superb conversation piece on the trips, meetings and fairs that year. So, a quick-and-dirty, highly functional job in a couple of days, and the kayak back in commission for a new trip the next weekend. Of course I planned a better rebuild the next winter - but hardly surprising to a hardened quick-and-dirty practitioner the kayak is still going strong as is after several years, and the initial color difference have faded to near invisibility. But next year – maybe...
Pics of the repair:
Patching up the hull.
The new two feet
Scarfing on the aft deck. The strips follows strictly the damage, to remove no more than necessary of the original strips and are therefore not symmetric.