A Sea Kayak Rescue (by, not of)

a chart of Benson Island in the Broken Group Islands, British Columbia, with a kayak route shown in red
the route of our rescue

In Canada, the government-required equipment for sea kayaks includes “a buoyant heaving line at least 15 meters long”. In other words, a rescue throwline. I’ve always suspected this requirement was drafted by some well-meaning but ill-informed civil servant who didn’t understand the differences between river and ocean kayaking. Because when I did whitewater paddling, I used my throwline more than once to fish out a buddy who’d had to abandon boat and was being recirculated in a feature that was loathe to spit him out. But I did that from the security of a riverbank. In sea kayaking, if your companion is in the soup, you likely are also. There’s rarely land or a patch of calm water from which to pitch a line. If you’re going to tow someone, it’s usually easier to paddle over and clip in your towline.* In more than three decades of sea kayaking, I’ve used my towline/throwline as a rescue throwline exactly once. And it wasn’t to save a kayaker.

This rescue happened back in the dawn of time, when it was still legal to camp on Benson Island in the Broken Group, and cameras shot film, not pixels.

My trip partner and I were paddling to the Broken Group Islands directly from Ucluelet, via the exposed outer route. We were doing this partially because we were young and tough and competent. But mostly because my ancient station wagon** had expensively disembowelled itself when we’d attempted the logging road to the usual put-in at Toquart Bay. We weren’t keen to repeat the experiment.

a sea kayak off Sail Rock, in the Broken Group islands, British Columbia
off Sail Rock

We’d had a safe crossing, with large swells from the open Pacific sweeping impressively but non-lethally underneath us. As we approached Benson Island, these seas broke dramatically against Sail Rock, hurling foam far into the air and warning us not to try threading our way directly along Benson’s south side. Even far offshore the incoming and rebounding swells seethed and sucked among the rocks. So we arced well south of Verbeke Reef in search of a gap with mellower water.

two men in red floater suits standing on Verbeke Reef in the Broken Islands group, British Columbia
well suited for reef work

Nearing the reef, I spotted a couple of guys in bright red Mustang floater suits standing on the rocks, next to a collection of buckets. Thinking they might be marine biologists collecting samples, I shouted and waved. Their response was to literally turn their backs on me, though they must have seen and heard us. Oh well, if they’d wanted help, they would have asked. Besides, as we curved towards the northeast edge of the reef, we could see their stout little aluminum boat bobbing a couple of hundred feet offshore. They’d wisely dropped anchor a safe distance from the reef, motored close to hop ashore, then let the boat out on a line so it wouldn’t be relentlessly hammered against the rocks while they went about their mysterious business on the reef.

We carried on towards the bay on the east side of Benson where we would camp. Just before Verbeke Reef vanished behind the southeast tip of the island, my companion happened to glance back over her shoulder at the critical moment. “Hey, those guys just fired a flare!”

We paddled swiftly back. The previously stand-offish duo was keen to talk to us now. As I rocked back and forth in the waves, regularly back-paddling to avoid being surfed on to the rocks, they shouted their problem: the current had snatched away the rope running from the reef out to their boat. Swimming out to the boat wasn’t an option: Their Gumby suits were superb for providing floatation and immersion protection. But as far as letting them swim towards a specific target through swirling currents? They’d have had all the directional control of dandelion seeds in a tornado. Neither was staying put an option: the rising tide would soon shrink the reef to toothy snags barely breaking the wave-swept surface.   

I sprinted out to where their ship-to-shore line was streaming in the current and grabbed the free end. But my feeble 1 person-power motor couldn’t pull the line straight enough across the tidal flow to reach the reef; it stubbornly arced short. So I knotted a loop in the end and clipped in my throwline. Paying it out behind me, I got close enough to the reef to toss the bag end to Gumby and Pokey, who lost no time in hauling in their boat.

two men on a reef use a line to haul in their boat
Back online

They quickly piled into their craft, but not before taking time to load several buckets full of gooseneck barnacles. In fact, far more than any marine biologists would need as samples; more like a harvest of this expensive delicacy. A harvest that perhaps shouldn’t have been happening in a National Park Reserve. And that might have accounted for their heads-in-the-sand attitude when we’d first hailed them. Since I didn’t want to be a party to possible poaching, I politely declined when they offered me a bagful of barnacles as thanks for reuniting them with their out-of-reach boat. A boat with such an ironically apt name that even I wouldn’t believe me if I didn’t have this photo:

a close up of an aluminum boat called "Untouchable"

*This sweeping generalization does not apply to mad bastards like the Tsunami Rangers. When you’re rock gardening and sea caving in kayaks, there’s a place for throwlines, since you don’t want to venture into whatever just knocked or sucked your buddy out of their boat.

** First rule of sea kayak dirtbag touring: Your kayak should always cost more than your car. To my shame, I’ve broken this rule with my most recent vehicle. In my defense, I was well past fifty when I did so.   


3 thoughts on “A Sea Kayak Rescue (by, not of)

  1. Using an aluminum skiff out checking/working on actual or possible bc marine trail sites, more than once we’ve had difficulty hauling the boat back to shore after a few tide changes. . . . so maybe they get a little bit of a pass except for losing the line totally! Lucky you guys looked back.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Philip, I came back to your blog for inspiration from your kayaking stories and how fitting you just posted this! We just came back from a week of paddling in the Broken Islands and having seen the ocean spray off Verbeke Rocks up close I can totally picture the two guys from your story clinging for life. Keep on writing.


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