Capsizing Our Double Kayak at the Octopus Islands

In Activity, Kayaking, Regional Districts, Strathcona Regional District by ExploringtonLeave a Comment

I’ve written before about trips that don’t go as planned. Sometimes a route changes, weather can turn and uncontrollable circumstances come into play that force you to change your plans. Mostly these changes are smart decisions that are required for personal and group safety. This trip turnaround was a combination of factors.

The small cove at Francisco Island, Octopus Island in the distance.
The small cove at Francisco Island, Octopus Island in the distance.

For Spring Break 2014, I planned two trips for my 5 days of vacation , March 22nd – March 27, with the two weekends bookending. The first weekend , before the start of my double trip,  was filled with a trip to the Kludahk Ridge and a hiking club meeting.  Finally, Sunday was the start of a much yearned for kayak trip with my family and friend.

Our plan started with a paddle to Octopus Islands with Kim, Hemingway, and my good friend Shawn. I’m going to preface this whole story with a little bit of information about Shawn. When I trip with him, I never go with a set plan…. well I mean I set a float plan and do everything that a responsible adventurer should do…BUT, I don’t expect that we will stick to that plan. I’ve made that mistake in the past and I was very frustrated.  When travelling with Shawn, I prepare to hear the phrase, “You know what we could do?”. I expect to hear it a lot.

By following my own advice I am able to enjoy my trips, rather than stress over changes. This isn’t a problem with my friend, rather it’s a personal flaw. When I plan I visualize,  what to pack, where I pack them,  route choices, potential issues and even how many steps/strokes I’ll be taking as well as what potential crisis may present themselves and how I will overcome the challenges.  To some extent most people do something like this in their planning. I think about it constantly in the days leading up to a trip, making lists in my head and paper before packing. It can be very exhausting but it also gives me confidence to handle situations when they arise. When changes arise, I start visualizations from the beginning. As I said this is my issue, I take ownership over it.

Sunday March 22nd, we departed Nanaimo after the Island Mountain Ramblers Spring Meeting, we were on our way to Quadra Island by 5:15 PM .   When adventuring with Hemingway, 21 months old now, I divide travel to our destination and the. It really is the easiest way for the little guy, he can only handle being bound to a chair for about 4 hours at a time. On Quadra, we stayed in a cabin at Taku Resort on Quadra Island.  We arrived in the pouring rain in the pitch black of night, close to 9 PM. The little guy was overtired and so he had difficult time sleeping. It was close to 11 pm before he closed his eyes.

Monday, March 23rd 

We were packed an in the car moving by 10 am, we had a tight schedule to keep. When planning a trip through Surge Narrows or any of the islands near Quadra Island it is very important to plan movement with the currents. The region has many narrows, each which change current speed and directions. At full ebb the narrowest section of our paddle was flowing at speeds in excess of 12 knots. We launched from the public dock at the end of Surge Narrows Road and we had to be on the water by 1 PM in order to make the current turn around time, when the current is slack and there was are currents or eddies to worry about. I’m happy I budgeted extra tie for packing and transit, anyone who travels with a 2 year old knows what I’m talking about.

Shawn's Subaru driving down the boat launch, Surge Narrow Road
Shawn’s Subaru driving down the boat launch, Surge Narrow Road

The launch at the end of Surge Narrows Road is very steep, 4×4 only. We were able to drive the Subaru down to the water but I was only able to get my standard out with nothing in it. My friend’s automatic made it with no issue, even loaded. However the route is very steep, near 30 degree slope.

With the extra time build in, we were on the water and on our way, right on schedule.  We approached the narrows at slack and we were able to ride the ebb gently through the crystal clear water of the narrows. The area is shallow, at least once I scraped the bottom of the kayak on the rock. With the water being so clear we were able to see the plethora of sea life on the bottom! So many urchins and sea cumbers on the sea floor, thousands upon thousands of them. Kelp kept mark of the current, we could see it flowing in the direction of the ebb; beautiful to watch the environment responding and changing with the currents.

Hemingway napping as we coast the west side of Maurelle Island
Hemingway napping as we coast the west side of Maurelle Island

Because we were heading through a risky area, I left my camera packed away in it’s case and therefore I don’t have photographs. I guess I was just in the moment, marveling at my surroundings, not wanting to live life through the lens — for a change. Further the weather was cold and we had a light rain, no need to get all my gear wet right off the shore.

Once through the narrows we traveled up the West side of Maurelle Island.  Kayaking in this region is amazing, not only is the ocean teaming with life, including a few cetaceans, but the landscape is mountainous. It’s as close as one can come to kayaking through the mountains. The surrounding Islands rise quickly to form peaks as high as 500 m in this area and on some of the other islands, 1000 m.  I think it would be a lot of fun to kayak to some of these islands to hike a few of the mountains, I’ll make my first goal, Elephant Mountain on Maurelle Island.

Being carried by the ebb we easily traveled 9.5 km in 2 hours, arriving at Francisco Island, just east of Octopus Islands, around 3 pm. The island is small and the water flows very quickly between it and Maurelle Island, creating dramatic ebbs and minor rapids.   As we approached the island’s West side we could see Okosolo Rapids about 1 km to the north. We could see the confluence of three narrows creating dramatic eddies and raging rapids that looked as though we were watching a river and not the ocean.

Octopus Island, Quadra Island, Kayaking, Francisco Island
From Francisco Island, the bay where we landed looking East to Octopus Islands

Francisco Island has a small bay that creates a perfect landing for Kayaks. Though rocky and  a little muddy, it is protected from wind and waves and quite shallow. We beached the kayaks and unloaded the boats. The island hosts a limited spots suitable for tenting, probably 3. The island is small so bring wood if you hope to have a small fire on the shore by your camp.  We allowed the tide to carry the boats to shore.

Octopus Island, Quadra Island, Kayaking, Francisco Island
Hemingway, Mom and Shawn; Chilling near Octopus Island

We set up our sleeping arrangements and and in no time Kim and Hemingway were settled. Likely due to his poor sleep Hemingway was fidgety and whiny, plus I think he was teething because he was a miserable little guy– Also possibly he’s becoming a toddler.  Shawn suggested an outing… a trip around the small Francisco Island.  I was up for it!  I figured we could get around the point and then follow the flooding currents south through the narrows to circumnavigate the small island.

Octopus Island, Quadra Island, Kayaking, Francisco Island
Shitty evidence that we were no t alone on the island. 

We got in the boat and paddled out, it only took us 5 minutes to reach the northern point of the island, we could see eddies forming, sucking and churning in ahead of us. We picked a route that would take us in through less turbulent areas. We needed to paddle the short distance, past the point to head into the current, likely flooding at 7 knots.

As we navigated through, I was amazed at the power of the eddies and currents. We were power stroking to move the boat through the 200 metre section. The water was fierce, whipping the boat back and forth close to 90 degrees at a time. I controlled the 21 foot kayak by using the rudder, switching between full rudder to port and starboard side.  As we regained our heading we would then be pulled in the opposite direction. From out of nowhere an eddy opened on the port side of the kayak, with a sucking sound the surface of the water bent and our kayak side slid into the depression. I attempted to brace,  I could see Shawn leaning out and heard the sound of the water hit our kayak. wham!, The boat rocked and heard the sound of water rushing into our cockpits as the boat fully capsized.

I was expecting a shock as I hit the water, having read about the experience of wet exits in the pacific ocean, usually there is one minute of hyperventilation, uncontrollable, 10 minutes of use of your fingers and then you have a limited time before you lose consciousness  as hypothermia takes over, then death. Shawn was dressed in a dry suit but I wore my shorty
, a paddling jacket and a set of bib paddling pants.  I didn’t feel the shock, it was cold but not as cold as I feared!  Upside down, I grabbed my map case and tucked it into the cockpit before pulling myself slowly out of the boat, firmly grasping the combing and my paddle,  I emerged facing Shwan. We both held the kayak and check the water for loose debris.

We quickly communicated the plan, Shawn was ready to flip the boat but I stopped him. First we needed the pump, insuring it wasn’t floating away. He spotted it. I held the line attached to the boat and swam out to get the pump. All the while I could feel the tumultuous waters spinning us and the boat around, one moment water roiling up beneath my feet the next suction pulling down.  We easily righted the behemoth and placed the paddle as a float. Getting back in was a snap.

Everything said and done we were in the water for about 5 minutes, pretty good for my first real-life self rescue situation. Because Francisco Island is so small, we were only away from camp for about 15 minutes before we were coasting back in. I was happy to be safe, though I was wet! Shawn was dry, of course, thanks to his suit…. I have to get me one of those!

As the setting sun brought rain, not heavy but constant. We were grateful for the small tarp to shelter us. We organized bags for the next day, safe under the tarp. Our attempts to start a fire were lackluster. In our preparation we did’t bring any wood with us in the kayak. I refused to hack down the forest, we limited ourselves to the small amount of wood found on the rocky shore, which wasn’t much. We managed a small fire, enough to burn our wood-pulp diapers but not enough to provide any real warmth, nor build a coal bed.

Hemingway went to bed as dark was engulfed us; much easier than our night in the hotel due to his exhaustion from the poor sleep and short day on the water. He slept longer this night than he did most nights at home. I was worried that his sleeping system wouldn’t provide him with enough warmth but he was super snugly and only woke up two times throughout the night. The sleeping portion of the trip seems well organized, some other components need work.

Tuesday, March 24th

Our itinerary was to stay one night, the weather ensured we didn’t deviate from our plan. The forecast was calling for gale force winds in the afternoon blowing SE at 40 knots. Timing was going to be key in getting home safe. We gave ourselves extra time to paddle as we were going to paddle against the current, however, we found the paddling quick.

Kim, and I paddled the eastern edge of Quadra Island, alowing the low mountains of the shore to act as a lee. Shawn took a route that followed Maurelle Island and required him to cross the flows of Beezley passage to get back to us.Within 2 hours we were pulling into the shore taking refuge in small cove as we waited 40 minutes for the ebb to switch to flood.

Once the current changed, we easy made it back to our car. We packed up, Kim and Hemingway headed home, taking Shawn’s car while Shawn and I headed to Cortes for the next part of our adventure.

Octopus Island, Quadra Island, Kayaking, Francisco Island
And we sail….

It was well past dark by the time Shawn and I found a place to camp. Once we were set up we didn’t stay up long to chat, the rain was at it again.

Wednesday, March 25th

Ultimately we would call off any further adventure. The weather was calling for two days of gale force winds and Shawn was suffering a pulled muscle, probably from Monday’s adventure or lifting the heavy double kayak. The injury made it painful to lift weight or paddle vigorously. We settled for a short hike through the woods before heading back to Nanaimo on Wednesday, cutting our trip short.

Camping with the Hemingway

Camping with Hemingway is a different experience each time. I would love to say that every portion of the trip was a dream come true. My friend made a video of Hemingway on our trip. There were many clips he couldn’t use because we were yelling to the little guy, as he was running, getting into trouble on rocks etc. At his age, it takes constant supervision to ensure that he wasn’t putting his little life in danger.

Conversely, other times it’s pure magic. In the rear of the kayak I have a special view of my family. I observe the little guy engage with mom, the environment and generally how he observes his surroundings. He loves reaching into the water, looking down a the sea life and practicing safe boundaries; not once this trip was I concerned he was about to fall out. He has better control over his body and is understands that he can fall out if he is not careful.

In the end I am in control of what and how I want to remember the trip. Memory is a a little like the video Shawn put together, we can select the parts we stick in it and leave the stressful moments on the cutting room floor.

A note about diapers for those who want to take their baby kayaking or camping. We used Broody Chick wood pulp diapers. They claim to be biodegradable and compostable. As with most manufactured products labelled compostable, it means industrial composting that uses heat and agitation, don’t throw these things into a pit toilet, burn them or carry them out.
As to their quality, they work well. I can’t say they work better than the plastic lined diapers but they do work better than the cloth diapers we use at home.

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