Solo kayak trips; can they make you a safer paddler?

By tOM Humphries

If we're to believe conventional wisdom, solo trips are notoriously more dangerous than trips taken with a group. This seems to be universally echoed in nearly every outdoor sport, particularly if it involves "back country" or anything remote from pavement. In my nearly fifteen years experience as a search dog handler I've seen a disproportionate number of body recoveries compared to rescues; this is particularly true when considering persons lost or missing while on their own. Why then would people with experience and real knowledge take the risk of going alone?



I recently had a small group paddle planned for Goat Rock Beach here in Northern California. It was to go North a couple of miles stopping along the way to play on well known features then to a nice lunch beach before playing our way back. This is one of my favorite areas to play in the ocean's whitewater, or "rock gardens" as many refer to them. If you kayak, have the necessary skills and are ever out this way it is a must do run. This is one of the Neptune's Rangers, of which I am one, favorite paddles. After a long stressful week I was very much looking forward to a day on the water with two others. Mike who I paddle a lot with and is very skilled and Rosy a friend of friends that was vouched for as being competent. I'm very selective about who I'll paddle with, particularly in big conditions, but the prediction was for a small swell with light winds; perfect for going out with a new partner and a low key day. Our predetermined launch time came and went and I was still alone in the parking lot.

Thirty minutes later with no sign of Rosy and the text from Mike confirming he would not make it precipitated the sinking feeling that I was on my own. Mind you, I enjoy solo trips and have done many of them, backpacking, ski mountaineering, mountain biking as well as in my kayak. For me, there is a distinctively different mind set to going out solo as opposed to ending up solo. It took me nearly ten minutes to run through a re-set. My first thought was that I could have slept in, then my mind moved on to a need to justify a nearly three hour one way trip before it settled on the fact that I like my own company and I had the opportunity to paddle one of my favorite places in solitude.

Coming from a long outdoor background and my involvement in SAR may give me a sharper view than many with respect to when is a solo trip an acceptable risk and when is it just foolhardy. Ultimately it is always a personal choice. Everyone that indulges in solo endeavors should glean what lessons they can from reports of solo trips gone awry. I generally choose not to pass judgement on those that make poor choices as long as they are prepared, capable and willing to pay the price. I have a strong aversion to becoming the subject of an incident report; to this end, I went through my "go/no-go" decision tree. There are many models of decision trees available, many of them are activity specific, and I strongly urge everyone to read through as many of them as possible. They can be the tool that keeps you or your group from harm. I'll admit I mostly use a simplified method that ends with a gut check and two simple questions; how bad could it get and am I willing to accept the worst?

So after assessing what safety gear I had, the conditions at the time, the forecast, length of trip and my familiarity with the area; I got around to answering my two questions and happily packed myself down to the launch. I had almost forgotten how much I enjoy the feeling of being solely responsible for myself. There is something magical about being immersed in nature without the safety net of company. There was the occasional silent fisherman in view that floated past as I wove along my route, they lost in their own solitude  I suppose. Otherwise I was alone and loving the difference it brought.

Even as I had prepared to punch out through the small surf I was intently looking outward for any sign of a large "sneaker" wave or set. As I paddled across the small bay toward the first play feature I was double noting where submerged rocks were causing breaking waves. Head on a swivel, I purposely timed passing two of these for the short wet side surf ride they can provide as an ice breaker. There was an occasional medium set that would roll through to keep me honest and intent on scanning. On most trips the largest waves of the day would not rate much in the way of excitement, but I was glad for the tameness as it allowed me to poke into some features that are rarely available due to high exposure. In the more exposed areas my focus and awareness seemed much sharper than usual, allowing me to assess clean lines and time them with finesse. I also ran a few of the regulars where consequences are low on some of the bigger waves. I found that by really taking my time in set-up and planning I was learning and feeling the moves in much more detail. I had a few capsizes and rolled back up without incident, giving me an opportunity to try to troubleshoot and repeat with better results.

After a quiet lunch I retraced my route with perhaps a little more excitement at a few stops then safely returned for the landing, the ritual portage, changing, loading and drive home. I was glad for my day and had stayed out about as long as I would have with others along. This gave me a good sense of accomplishment and that well earned post workout feeling. It was on the drive home that I began to make comparisons to my "normal" behavior and that of this day's paddle. Since I'd had no safety net I had obviously and wisely been more reserved, this brought me to question my regular habits when out with my crew looking for an adrenal rush.

 
The fact is that this trip brought me to question how I assess my own safety on our Neptune's Rangers group paddles, or any group paddle for that matter; and that is a good thing to revisit on a regular basis. I feel like I might just schedule a solo trip every so often, because from my perspective I now believe it makes me a safer paddler. If you have the gear, skills and desire to do solo trips, please run through a good go/no-go decision tree and don't forget the gut check. If you're honest in those efforts I'm certain your chances of getting back safe to your landing are pretty darn good. I'm also certain that you'll find yourself to be a safer paddler after the fact.

All the best, tOM