Day out in the Forth ~ a cautionary tale
by Tim Dawson
The morning, it has to be said, was not auspicious. Parking on the sea front at North Berwick, a stiff north easterly was sending fierce, irregular surf in our direction. Feelers were put out for an intended one-way trip to Gullane, but withdrawn at different stages dependent on our ability: Rob, the surf king, Mike and myself, experienced but on this occasion somewhat reluctant sea tourers, and Steve, a strong but inexperienced paddler who gave himself more than a fair share of blame for what was to come.
We gave the rock strewn beach at North Berwick the respect it deserved and drove round to Gullane which, we thought, would be more sheltered. We were not wrong ~ surf still there was, but regular and predictable, so it was not long before we were grouped happily together outside the surf line. Our curiosity led us back towards North Berwick, round the headland of Black Rock where we negotiated some rip currents, and on towards the island of Eyebroughty. The main object of the day was to plan a trip for Easter, not to paddle a vast distance. We agreed that we would circle Eyebroughty and head back for the pub.
Drawing level with the west end of the island, Mike was ahead of me and I could see from his paddling that he was not happy. It was looking decidedly bumpy outside the island, whereas to shoreward of it there was a cream of surf interspersed with rocks. A quick discussion between the four of us made for a decision to turn back ~ now.
There is no question that this was the right decision. It was how we did it that boded ill for us. I take responsibility for that first mistake ~ I simply turned my kayak round and headed towards the shore, angled in the direction we had just come. The others followed suit, none really aware of the boomers building behind us.
It was perhaps predictable that as we ran before the waves, Steve was the first to come out of his boat. Rob, clearly more confident in these conditions than the rest of us, managed to get him back in, but with a boat full of water and no pump. Rob shouted to Mike and myself, who both had back deck towlines, to come to Steve's assistance. I was actually too busy trying to look after myself, but Mike did manage to get a hook on Steve's boat, with Rob's help as it proved very difficult to actually get the rear deck mounted line-bag open. However, with the waves growing and pushing us in behind the island, Mike was unable to help Steve for long and he had major problems trying to tow the raft cross-sea, it being impossible to get turned into the waves, or even make any real progress.
With the help of a spear in the kidneys from Steve's Capella, Mike had to drop the tow as they were getting into the surf proper and it seemed best to just try and get ashore. Steve was back in the water shortly after the tow was released, and Mike got couped in the surf on the rocks at the last minute. Rob meanwhile was busy trying to gather up the many floating pieces of gear.
Steve, resilient to the last, seemed unworried by being in the water and waited to be carried inshore on the surf. However, I was circling him and felt unable, despite his protests, to leave a swimmer to his own devices. Eventually I managed to raft up against his boat in order to empty it. Just in time for a large wave to grab me and the two kayaks and hurl them to landward on its broken face. I soon ended up underneath all this and knew it was time to get rid of the Capella ~ and roll. This I did at the second attempt, just in time for another wave to knock me back in. I was now the third swimmer. Unlike Steve's Capella, which never seemed to stray far from him, my kevlar Nordkapp disappeared rapidly out of my horizon. There was nothing for it but to swim for shore, scanning the part rocky, part sandy beach for my fellow paddlers. A brief, worrying glimpse of Mike heading for the rocky bit.
Steve and I landed at about the same time, on a gentle sandy section. My boat was lying on this sand close to some rocks. Seeing that Rob and Steve were safe ashore, I headed out over the rocks to look for Mike. I found him unhurt but shaken, and minus his brand new spectacles. Reunited, the four of us manhandled Mike's boat over the rocks and back onto the sandy beach, where we supped some tea, gathered our belongings, and headed, uneventfully, for home.
We learnt a lot from this incident, and I reproduce it here in the hope that readers will not make the same mistakes. After a lengthy post mortem over beer and hot chocolate, our conclusions were:
Having decided not to round the island, we should not have turned round and headed inland. Better would have been to ferry glide west, facing out to sea, away from the island and its surf.
The potential for multiple incidents in surf is enormous!
Given that we were running before the waves, a towline attempt across the waves to get away from the shore was not a sensible option. It would have been fine for taking Steve further out to sea, better with two of us towing and Rob rafted up next to him.
Steve needed a readily accessible pump in his boat. The rest of us had them but were unable to use them in the surf.
Secondary Pumps need to be readily accessible - and tucked down the side of the seat in a Quest is NOT accessible. The latest P&H seat design lends itself to mounting the pump crossways on a flange that positions it just below the thighs. With a "fastex" buckle or Velcro or similar, it can be released easily.
There were technical problems with reaching for back deck-bagged towlines in the prevailing conditions. A slight modification to a proprietary model of bag makes it much easier to open and get the hook out. (See Mike's article on tow lines for details)
Can anyone add to this list? Comments welcome, via the editor.
We all got away with this unscathed. Nobody saw what happened, which was a relief to us as anybody who had would almost certainly have called the coastguard. The three glass / kevlar boats all sustained some damage, painful to their owners but we lived to tell the story.
Had we had an offshore wind, or a more rocky coast, this could all have been very different indeed. Mike had a VHF with him, which could have helped, and we had various flares and the like - that said, it would have been a longish swim waiting for help!