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Rob Mousley recounts the events from late February when a paddler was reported missing after going for his usual morning paddle… and the lessons that can be learnt from the ensuing tragedy.

Accident reports are easy to write when the story ends happily, but this one didn’t and it’s with a very heavy heart that I’m writing this, with a view to learning what we can from it.

What happened?

At 3pm on Friday afternoon 26 Feb, 2021, a 46-year-old set off on his own, to paddle in Bakoven Bay, Cape Town.

He was equipped with a PFD, a leash and he was paddling a Fenn Blue-Fin S. He had his keys in a waterproof pouch but didn’t have his mobile phone or any other communications gear.

At just before 7pm, the National Sea Rescue Institute was alerted that he was missing and that it was suspected that he might still be at sea.

The NSRI launched both land and sea searches, with three sea rescue craft conducting a search between Oudekraal and Table Bay until midnight. They resumed the search at dawn, assisted by the EMS/AMS Skymed rescue helicopter, which finally found the man’s body, still tethered to the ski on Saturday morning, some 4.5 nautical miles (8.3km west of Bantry Point).

Deceptive conditions

The southeaster blows directly offshore on the Atlantic coastline, and it can appear deceptively calm in the lee of the shore, close to the rocks. But a few hundred metres out to sea, the wind, accelerating down the mountainside, can be lashing the water with squalls of 50 knots or more. And, of course, those howling squalls can arrive without warning, as the southeaster grows in strength.

So, it’s possible for a paddler to feel safe in the sheltered water close to the rocks, but in extreme danger from the maelstrom of wind and spray, just a few hundred meters offshore.

Adding to the risk is the water temperature. Strong southeasters cause upwellings of cold water: as the warmer surface layer is blown offshore, it’s replaced by frigid water flowing up from the deep. On Saturday morning, the water temperature at Bakoven was 8.5°C.

One can only speculate what happened, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a paddler has been caught out by the conditions on the Atlantic side of the peninsula.He could easily have strayed just a little too far out to sea, or simply been caught by a squall close to shore. Once in the water, he’d have a very short time to remount before becoming too cold to do so.

The further he drifted out to sea, the stronger the squalls and the more difficult it would be to paddle back into them.

The aftermath

The only possible upside to this tragedy is to consider the lessons that can be learned. There are two key factors in this tragedy: the weather conditions and the inability to call for help

Weather Conditions

Paddlers frequently neglect to consider weather conditions – and specifically how quickly they can change.For example, our “Reverse Miller’s Run” from Fish Hoek to Miller’s Point is often regarded as the “soft” version of the route because the waves are smaller – and only start some distance into the run. But the north-westerly blows slightly offshore, and on rare occasions (it’s happened only a couple of times to me) the wind sometimes swings directly offshore some 2km from Miller’s Point and increases dramatically in strength. Then you have to be capable of paddling diagonally side-on to the wind and waves.

It’s not just the weather forecast that you need to be aware of, but the water temperature, the local conditions (for example, the wind funnelling down the side of a mountain) and the possibility of unexpected changes.

Calling for help

There’s a strong ethos (and rightly so) among the surfski community towards the idea of self-rescue.

But anyone can find themselves in trouble. While accidents frequently involve novices, I know personally of a number of incidents where very experienced paddlers too have found themselves in potentially fatal situations, where self-rescue is impossible and it’s necessary to call for help.

The SafeTrx tracker app for mobile phones is a zero-cost option, directly supported by the NSRI. When you trigger an emergency on the app, it connects directly with the NSRI’s Emergency Operations Centre.SafeTrx has already been used successfully in numerous rescues around South Africa.

Just like every other piece of equipment, however, it’s not a 100% guaranteed silver bullet and you’ll increase your odds of survival with every other piece of safety gear that you carry.

Minimizing the risks

By its nature, surfski paddling will never be a 100% risk-free sport, but we can minimize the risk by making better decisions.

My hope is that this awful tragedy might have at least some positive outcomes in helping us to focus on those decisions.

Our sincere condolences to the paddler’s friends and loved ones.

The NSRI’s free RSA SafeTrx application is available to download from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store

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