Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Poor judgement at the sea caves. Again

I've written a number of posts on the decision to paddle or not to paddle and on the conditions around the mainland sea caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It is well known that two paddlers died in very similar incidents there over the past few years, so well known that a group of federal and state entities and volunteer groups rounded up the money to install a real time wave observation station that's linked under the Lake Superior resources on the right of this very blog post. There is also a large sign at the top of the stairs warning of the conditions that can and frequently do occur in the Meyers Beach and mainland sea caves area. In a nutshell, there seems to be plenty of printed and online information out there plus the ace in the hole: there is a ranger stationed at the launch advising people on conditions at the time they are launching. I think former Vikings coach Denny Green framed the underlying problem best however. When asked what he thought of the criticism of his underachieving football team on the sports talk radio stations he replied,'The beauty of this country is that anyone can state their opinion. The other beauty of it is that I don't have to listen to it'. Unfortunately this is the attitude with some of the paddlers leaving for the caves. It is usually the guys (and I emphasize 'guys' here) in the 10' rec boats with cutoffs, Tshirts, and no spray skirt. This time was different however. It was 10 paddlers on a guided trip with longtime Bayfield outfitter Trek & Trail.

Check out the story in the Ashland Current for the basic facts of the story. Waves 2-3' and building and a ranger on the scene discouraging the party from launching were facts that are not in dispute. We don't know the skill level of the customers, what NOAA was saying on the radio, or how experienced the guides were but from my perspective the whole scenario just does not smell good. Typically experienced paddlers don't pay for the privilege of a guided day trip to the sea caves, they just saddle up and head out. This means the group were advanced beginners at best. If the guides were truly experienced and had that hard won 'local knowledge', they would know that with a west wind the bluebird, sun bathing weather on Meyers Beach at the launch would turn into those 2-3 footers once they got out past the wind shadow of Mawikwe Point. They also would know that those same 2-3 footers, maybe nice swells out past the point, or more likely building waves with the wind blowing the tops off them, would turn into a disorganized mess once they hit the sheer walls of the caves and bounced back out into the lake, clapotis/reflection wave conditions that would extend at least 300 yards out from the caves. There is a image, taken by the RTWOS camera during a September storm of a reflection induced eleven foot high square wave off the caves.

On guided trips the clients tend to trust the guides judgement because that's why they purchased the guided trip in the first place. They want to see the cool sights, learn a bit about the sport, and do so in a safe and controlled manner. It sounds like that trust was misplaced in this case. A similar incident involving a guided girl scout group from another state and a rapidly developing thunderstorm occurred a couple years ago but it was apparent that the 'guides' were from an inland environment and had minimal experience on the big lake. Not the case this time around. Reading the comments on the linked article and the one before it when the story came out are interesting. "Why should the taxpayers shoulder the burden of rescuing people that supposed professionals placed in danger?". "We should blame the guide service this time. Lives at risk is unacceptable. Suspend their license and fine them". " The clients did the responsible thing and paid to be taken out to the sea caves by professionals probably becuase they wanted a safer experience than going out alone. We can't put all of the blame the clients for being stupid or inexperienced. We CAN blame the guide service". "People who require rescue services out there should be billed for their stupidity". My personal favorite.....not!........"I think the government should take over the guide service like they did GM. Then everything would be better. Those private companies just take too many risks to make a buck".

Bill em for the rescue, fine em, stupid clients, etc. I'm sure this is not the end of this story, there will be more coming out in the next few weeks. Park officials are meeting with the owner of Trek & Trail today. It would be an interesting discussion to hear. I personally had an experience with the company back in 1997, when it was under a different owner, that had me questioning their decision making process but that's another post. I was in the same position as the eight clients were in this incident, an unconscious incompetent in the Lake Superior kayaking world, trusting the judgement and experience of the people I'd hired to make me better. It didn't quite turn out that way and it sounds like this trip didn't either. The attitude of the locals is summed up in this one last comment on the news story. "Dear kayaking tourists, thank you for bringing your tourist dollars into our area but please stop putting our locals at risk with your cocky attitudes towards Lake Superior". In this case the comment needs to be directed squarely at the two guides and perhaps the 'corporate culture' of the Bayfield tour outfitter. It will be both interesting and instructive as this thing plays out.


Haris said...

I was with a L3 class on their 5th day of training crossing from Sand to Little Sand Bay at the time the rescue took place. The waves were solid 3', some even higher, and the wind was 15-20 knots. My students--Level 3!--were definitely at the edge of their abilities. And we did not have to deal with the rebounding effect near the caves or be afraid of getting smashed against the cliffs.

The conditions that day did not come out of nowhere like they sometimes do. It was all in the forecast and conditions were quite gnarly even early in the morning long. I can't begin to speculate what risk assessment was carried out by the guides that day.

I talked to the range on Meyer's Beach a couple of days later and he claimed that the main issue was the inability of the clients to make forward progress into the wind. 'Only' two kayak capsized!

Christopher Crowhurst said...

Thanks for posting this, people need to know who to trust. Especially the unconsciously incompetent.

DaveO said...

A person can actually go back and look at the wave plot by hour at the caves on RTWOS. It pretty much tells the tale of fairly steady waves, which you (Haris) and a couple other buddies in Bayfield corroborated for that day. From the sound of it, that trip should have been aborted at the Trek & Trail barn before even heading to Meyers Beach. CC, thanks for the kind words.

kykr13 said...

The incidents are always troubling, but this one especially for all of the reasons mentioned.

Comments on articles like this are fascinating to me for some reason. Interestingly enough, there are exactly "zero" of them on the story about the 39' powerboat that ended up on the Ashland breakwall Monday night. Rescue (no injuries either, fortunately) was involved there too.

bonnie said...

Wow. I'm a pretty good paddler and if I was going ANYWHERE serious on the Great Lakes, I would think of hiring a guide to provide the necessary local knowledge that I know I don't have. I know that the Great Lakes are not to be messed around with, that weather can change very fast, and that when it does, your fresh-water waves are much steeper and nastier than our salt-water waves.

I would hire somebody specifically because I would trust them to keep me out of trouble.

DaveO said...

Indeed. My first couple of trips on the big salty pond were guided as well. My knowledge of tides and currents is rudimentary at best. The whole point is that these guys are hired to keep your butt out of trouble, not get you into it.

Whitecap Kayak said...

I stumbled on your article late. I had heard about the incident but did not know of the details. There have been a lot of comments about the mistakes these guides made. I forwarded the articles & comments to our guides (Whitecap Kayak) as a good reminder of how important it is to be extra, extra careful on Lake Superior! As the old saying goes, It's better to be more safe than sorry - it's better to walk away before a paddle than to be carried away from a paddle!
With all the negative things said about poor judgment from guides, I'd like to share this nice e-mail that was sent our company from a positive situation (better "outcome") at the Sea Caves from this summer:

Hello -

I am writing to express the most sincere, heartfelt thanks that I can for your guides, Stephen and Steven, being near my wife and I when we were in need of help this summer and rushing to our rescue.

We were kayaking on Superior on the morning of August 18th, exploring the Squaw Bay Sea Caves. The weather was gorgeous on the outboung leg, and we were bracketed by several groups of seakayakers led by guides. As the morning turned to afternoon, we decided to turn around and start to make our way back to Meyers Beach. Upon turning around, however, we discovered that not only had the wind picked up, but we were now heading directly into the waves. One of many novice mistakes that we made that day included not having splash skirts on, which resulted in us taking some water on every time a larger wave splashed over our bow. Very suddenly, as we were smack-dab in the middle of shoreline expanse of sea caves, we took about 5 waves in row over our bow and capsized frightenly close to the cliffs. Withing minutes of our shouts for help as we hung onto our tandem kayak in the water, trying to kick away from shore, either Steven or Stephen (I don't remember whether Stephen with a "ph" or Steven with a "v" was the first to come back and help us) was swiftly paddling toward us and assured us that we'd be ok. He was completely calm, assessed the situation, and first towed us away from the cliffs, then peformed a flawless T-rescue to help us get back in our kayak, all the while talking to us and telling us what his plan was, in order to help us keep calm. He then paddled with us as we caught up to his group, and then the two guides (Stephen and Steven) took turns paddling next to us and chatting with us to help keep us calm as we made our way back to Meyers Beach (For what it's worth, one of the young guides had a bit of a surfer hair cut, and the other had shorter hair; the short-haired gentleman was our first responder, and we simply cannot thank him enough).

We have enjoyed sea kayaking several times previously, but always on much smaller lakes. We are SO thankful that the rookie mistakes we made that day can be used as learning experiences, thanks to Steven and Stephen being there and being skillful enough to help us to safety. THANK YOU FOR BEING THERE FOR US.

If there is ever ANYTHING we can do to help you guys out, PLEASE email or call us and we will do anything we can.

(I'll leave the names off)

It's nice to remember all that good trips & the help our many guides bring to the place we love - a place of inherent risk to those who venture out on to it.
This is why we spend all winter in the pool praticing!

Neal Schroeter
Whitecap Kayak