Thursday, 18 September 2014

Practicing self rescue on the river Elbe

Still enthusiastic about paddling I had published my paddling trip report about Sweden on a German outdoor forum - and had received a very interesting answer. Wilbert, a German paddler I had not known before, was so touched by my whining about potatoe sack kayak entry methods that he offered to give me some paddling lessons. I am always eager to improve my paddling technique but this was November in Germany! And as I am planning to leave Germany in March again paddling lessons did not seem such a good idea. But Wilbert was not to be deterred. He argued that you have to practice in serious conditions or elsewise you will not be prepared for a real case of emergency. He also offered his dry suit. I did not have any more excuses now and set out to visit Wilbert on the river Elbe - in November.

The whole expedition started already with an adventure: Wilbert came to pick me (and my 40 kg of boat and equipment) up on two bikes and a bike trailer. Although being as tall as Wilbert I seem to have much shorter legs meaning that I could hardly mount the bike - and of course Wilbert had not brought a key to lower the saddle. I ended up sitting on a far too high bike like a little monkey and towing an ultra-heavy trailer. But to my great surprise we made it the boathouse without me falling off. The rest of the day was spent assembling my boat.

Next morning we got down to business and I learnt that winter paddling is even more complicated than summer paddling: I had to squeeze myself into Wilbert's dry suit first. Getting through the suit's latex cuffs reminded my awfully of a forceps delivery. But my woes were not over yet: I still had to put on a neoprene cap that made me look a stuffed sausage. Now add neoprene shoes, a spray skirt and a life jacket and you will understand that I felt (and looked) like the famous Michelin Man. But finally at 11 am we made it onto the water. Wilbert discovered that his water proof setup was leaking and soon refrained from entering the water. (My dry suit was leaking, too but I did not have that comfortable choice....). Soon I was splashing through 10 degree Celsius cold water with an balmy 7 degree Celsius air temperature. 

I quickly realised that this was hard work. Despite wearing warm thermal underwear and an (almost) waterproof drysuit I felt soon cold - the cold water was draining my energy. But I had to work hard trying to get back into my flooded boat via a paddle float. Still, after 2 hours of practicing I had to throw in the towel and headed back for lunch. In the afternoon I had my personal highlight when Wilbert taught me how to climb up a ladder on a steel piling - very important for me as a canal addict. This newly acquired technique will help me to go through locks easier on future trips. Although I first thought it impossible to stand up completely in my flexible foldable kayak I managed to do it almost gracefully after some practice and soon I was climbing up and down the ladder like a little monkey... eehhhmmmm more like and oversized Michelin Man....

I have to admit that I was very exhausted that first evening but still spent an interesting evening chatting with Wilbert in the cozy (and well heated) boat house. It was hard to get up next morning with sore muscles but you don't learn self rescue by sitting in a boat house....So soon we were on the water again with Wilbert deciding that he did not intend to get wet today. Being a professional photographer he volunteered to take some pictures of my acrobatic efforts instead. (This explains the high quality pictures in this posts instead of my usual smartphone shots.) This day I practiced a full blown self rescue from the very beginning to the very end which means I had to do a wet exit and submerge myself completely underwater - quite a disturbing experience in these temperatures even with a dry suit. We were practicing in the Elbe with a falling tide, so when I finally emerged I just saw my boat floating away. In sheer panic I yelled at Wilbert to grab my boat whereas he just answered smiling (and not moving one milimeter): "No, you just have to swim faster......" Have you ever tried to swim with a dry suit on? The buoyancy makes normal swimming almost impossible and I was wildly splashing around until backstroking finally did the trick and got hold of my kayak again. I took revenge on Wilbert by trying to splash him when bilge pumping.

Another surprising lesson learned was that my boat cart was no big obstacle while self rescuing. First of all it floats should it coincidentally fall off. And secondly I could still turn the capsized boat around with it strapped on and it wasn't really in the way when climbing back into the boat.  But I still have a lot to learn: At the end of the lesson Wilbert decided to get wet anyways and showed me a Greenland roll which is so much more elegant than the paddle float entry we had been practicing. But alas with my Feathercraft K1 this roll is not possible - my kayak is too high to lie flat on the afterdeck for the Greenland roll. I will have to learn the traditional Eskimo roll sooner or later.

Sunday afternoon I was so exhausted that I dreaded going back into the cold water especially since it was raining heavily by now but of course I did not want to admit that. Luckily Wilbert was fed up as well and now I had a good excuse to stay in the warm boat house. But we did not spend the afternoon idly. I learned how to improve my deck setup to accommodate paddle float, spare paddle and bilge pump and everything else I need at hand without stuff being in the way in an emergency. Being an eager student I spent the evening studying a seakayak instruction manual which led me to the conclusion that seakayaking will probably never be my favourite occupation. Too much hassle and too many risks involved for a soloist like me. Maybe in a couple of years I have become such an efficient paddler that I might change my mind on that topic but for now I will not plan any extended seakayaking trips.

Monday morning I looked like a victim of domestic violence with bruises all over my legs from scrambling in and out of my boat. It didn't help that I could hardly turn my head any more. Still, I managed to pack up my boat without having a nervous break down and had a last meal with Wilbert. I could hardly believe how fast time had passed. To get back to the station I had to mount that dreaded bike again but by now Wilbert had found the key to lower the saddle and now I could pedal almost gracefully  to the train station. Dragging my boat in and out of trains, subway station and elevators has almost become a hobby of mine by now.....

Bottom line: Everyone had told me that rescue practices in November are a bit of a crazy idea but the whole weekend has turned out to be great fun and taught me some valuable lessons. A big thank you to Wilbert for being such a patient teacher and documentating my cold water acrobatics. And another big thank you to Hansa Kanu in Stöckte whose club boat house we could use that weekend - they even postponed to turn off the water in the house for the winter just for us. 


Amy L said...


Aitor Zabala said...

Hi christine,

This september I organized (for free) some rescue practices. We usually go to the sea (northern Spain) but in this ocasion we were in a lake.

For long trips and windy days I recommend you to try a greenland paddle or aleutian version (home made). I've got a werner camano (carbon version) and it is actually my spare paddle...

Check out this website, very good and visual information:

Best regards

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Alan M said...

Hey Christine,

I just popped in for a checkup!!! and saw this. Well done. Good to see you're getting some tuition, it'd be worth you getting some more in a few months when you've used and practiced what you've just learnt.

Learn to do a roll next, it makes life much easier!

Keep at it, you'll soon be paddling between France a England...... :)