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Eager to hit the water as lockdown restrictions lift? Seasoned surfskier Rob Mousley shares his lifesaving dos and don’ts. But first, a story…The Reverse Miller’s Run in Cape Town is a popular winter surfski route that takes paddlers from Fish Hoek Beach to Miller’s Point. It’s a paddle of some 11km and on a good day can be covered in less than an hour. It relies on infamous Cape cold front conditions that produce a north-northwesterly wind that carries the paddlers down the coast. The conditions were set to be perfect on 9 July and a steady stream of surfskiers launched, no doubt relishing the thought of time in nature, doing what they loved the most.But any seasoned paddler will tell you that the sea often has other plans for you, and it takes only a slight change in wind direction and speed to turn the sea into a churning froth with little visibility. Which is what happened on that Thursday just after Duncan MacDonald, Thomas Altman and Michael Thorpe, who had been paddling in close proximity to each other, passed the Miller’s Point lighthouse and had the finish in their sights. Paddling side-on to the wind, the three found themselves not heading to shore, but instead paddling parallel to it. After turning hard right, Altman and Thorpe battled their way to past the breakwater, but MacDonald was increasingly swept off course. He was perilously close to what paddlers refer to as “hurricane alley”, an area offshore where westerly winds are funnelled into howling torrents between two peaks. “My choices were to continue to try to paddle in and perhaps land at Smitswinkel Bay, or to call for help,” MacDonald recalls. Rather than exhaust himself, he did the latter by triggering the tracking app SafeTRX on his cellphone. When this is done, the NSRI Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) receives an emergency notification from SafeTRX. He remained on his boat for warmth and to stay visible while he waited for help to arrive. Meanwhile, a concerned Vincent Cicatello, who had been watching for the paddlers to arrive from shore, had called the NSRI. Station 10 (Simon’s Town) launched, located MacDonald more than 6km offshore of Smitswinkel Bay in growing seas and sheeting squalls, and brought him to safety.Arguably, SafeTRX and the ensuing response from NSRI’s EOC and Station 10, as well as the buddy system of looking out for fellow paddlers saved the day. MacDonald also knew he would be more visible and safer on his boat, and thanks to the stability of his Fenn Blue-fin, was able to rest and wait for help to arrive.Seasoned paddler Rob Mousley believes water users have a responsibility to be as safe as possible – for themselves, their families and, during this time of Covid-19, the first responders who are called to help them. Mousley completed the Reverse Miller’s Run earlier that same day in a personal best time, but his takeaway extends beyond breaking his own record. A postmortem of the day’s events once again highlighted the need for each water user to have a safety checklist in place. Do everything right in case things go wrong. On the day Duncan MacDonald had:
  • A fully charged cellphone housed in a waterproof pouch.
  • The SafeTRX app as well as NSRI emergency numbers on his phone. (The NSRI’s free RSA SafeTRX application is available to download from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store)
  • An energy bar and water.
  • A personal flotation device.
  • A leg and paddle leash.
  • A warm top.
Mousley emphasises the concept of “layers of safety”. For instance, activating SafeTRX relies on a fully charged phone and a strong signal; additional layers could take the form of flares or a VHF radio. The advantage of group events is that participants and organisers on shore keep an eye out for fellow paddlers and are quick to alert emergency services when one of their peers is late or appears to be in trouble. This works as a fantastic back-up. But for lone paddlers, it's vital to inform a family member or friend what you are doing, where you are paddling, what time you will be back and instruct them to alert rescue services if you are not back when you said you would be. Less tangible factors are skill level, fitness and experience, although MacDonald admits that having done 30 or so Miller’s Runs this year might have led to some overconfidence on his part. More experienced paddlers had decided not to participate that day.From the NSRI’s perspective, keep the following in mind:
  • Weather and sea conditions can change quickly, so take with what you need to stay afloat and warm.
  • Secure pencil flares and/or hand-held flares, a reflector, a whistle and your fully charged cellphone, with SafeTRX app and emergency numbers loaded, in a waterproof pouch and test the pouch before you go out on the water.
  • Wear a brightly coloured PFD.
  • Paddle in a buddy system.
  • Have your name and telephone numbers printed on your craft.
  • Leave a card with your name and phone number on your vehicle dashboard.
  • Take the appropriate thermal protection for the conditions forecast.
  • Place bright reflective tape on your boat and paddle blades.
  • Call for help sooner rather than later.
  • When carrying flares, always keep one flare to use when you can see or hear the rescue vessel arriving.
  • Remember that you’re most likely to see the NSRI before they see you – you need some way to communicate with them directly so that you can guide them those last few hundred metres to your location. A VHF radio is great for this.
After a particularly gruelling rescue during a race in December 2009, South African surfski paddlers have contributed some R6,7 million through a special fund-raising account to the NSRI. If you would like to support this initiative, please call Lianne at the NSRI Call Centre on 021 430 4701 or send her an email to monthlydraw@searescue.org.za. Please let Lianne know that you would like to support the Surfski initiative. You could win one of five R10 000 prizes each month as well as a R100 000 in the annual December draw. For R50 per month, you will get 2 tickets giving you 10 entries each month and 2 entries into the December R100 000 draw.Credit: Original story rewritten with kind permission from Robin Mousley. Read the full story.
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