Even the most experienced water users get into trouble. We chatted to avid kayak fisherman Shaun Reid about his recent experience of being stranded offshore after his fishing kayak started taking on water, and the valuable lessons he learnt from the ordeal.
Monday, 14 November, is a day Durban local Shaun Reid won’t easily forget. It started off well enough. Shaun packed his fishing gear and prepared his kayak for an afternoon of fishing, a pastime he enjoys regularly. He was heading for the popular fishing grounds off Umhlanga Barge, only once he’d arrived, he realised he was taking on water. He recalls wondering if a shark had bumped him but it was more likely he’d hit a rough swell, the impact being enough to pop the seams on his kayak that had been for extensive repairs a while back. “It happened quickly, and the boat suddenly started taking on water,” Shaun recalls.
He placed a call explaining his situation to the Whatsapp fishing community group he belongs to, packed his fishing rods into the kayak’s specialised hatches and got into the water realising his own weight could contribute to his boat potentially sinking, something he wanted to avoid at all costs.
“I had my fish-finder with me so I could gauge the depth of the water (28m). This area is very ‘sharky’, so instead of hanging around, I decided to head for shore which looked to be about a 2km swim, dragging the [now waterlogged and unstable] boat with me.” Shaun acknowledges that despite his fitness, water skills, experience and familiarity with the area, he had never felt so alone in his life. “I took out my camera and began filming myself. It helped to calm me down and feel less alone,” he admits.
“I knew I was in big trouble. There was a strong current and a pumping southwester, but I realised all I could do was stay in the moment, try to make headway, and try to deal with each problem I encountered as it arose. I wasn’t sure if I was making headway, kept asking myself whether my friends had called for help. I couldn’t see anyone coming to help... the panic was rising... But I made a decision that at some point, if I needed to, I would leave the boat and swim to shore.”
When Shaun reflects on those moments, he says that while he’s always been confident in his ability, what he didn’t realise was his vulnerability. “I had this idea that ‘I can do anything,’ but actually, I can’t. I was always overconfident. There I was, no life jacket, no flares, no SafeTrx. I just thought, ‘Shaun, you’re an idiot!’”
Shaun had been kicking his way to shore, his boat getting heavier and heavier, and at one point, he thought he might have to abandon it and just swim for shore. He’d been moving for about an hour and a half, and realised he was making headway, but then it occurred to him that it would make more sense to pull his kayak. So he turned around with his back to the shore and did just that. At one point he thought he heard a boat, and wondered if help was nearby. But in his blue wetsuit and with a white and yellow kayak, he would be difficult to spot in water with foamy swells and white horses.
“I tried to use the wind to my advantage and chose the line of least resistance, and slowly started making my way in. It was about another 30 minutes and I reached the shore.”
The ‘noise’ Shaun had heard was the NSRI, who had been looking for him using a grid search based on the location he had provided when he made his distress call to his group. Shaun was relieved to be on the beach and out of the water, and thanked the NSRI crew that had set up in the parking area to assist the volunteers on the water.
NSRI Station 50 (Umhlanga) Station Commander Jarrod Garber was part of the crew on the callout to find Shaun. Jarrod, a waterman himself, frequents the same area for fishing and is familiar with the waters there for recreational and as well rescue purposes. Because Shaun’s location wasn’t fixed (no SafeTrx coordinates, for example), the crew had to use a grid search based on Shaun’s information of being near the Umhlanga Lighthouse when he made his call. In reality, he was much further south. The crew were on the point of calling for a second boat to join the search when they were informed that Shaun was safely on land.
But Jarrod, an optimist and pragmatist by nature, felt there were important lessons to be learnt from the experience and, really, what it boils down to is getting as accurate a location as possible for the casualty. This is why an app like SafeTrx is invaluable. “People can become disoriented when they’re offshore. Perceived distances may be inaccurate, and you can’t discount the fact they might be panicking.” Even the most experienced water user is vulnerable when they come off their boat. “So the first thing is an accurate location,” Jarrod emphasises. “Secondly, keep your phone in a cell phone pouch in a waterproof bag and secure it around your neck, not somewhere in your boat in case you become separated from it.” Alerts sent from the app are picked up from the NSRI’s Emergency Operations Centre and they are trained to effect callouts from these emergency notifications.
Jarrod notes that, even though the water off Durban is mild in temperature, hypothermia can still be a problem if someone is in the water long enough. SafeTrx is a lifesaver. It’s also handy for recording other information about your excursions, like routes and times. “I’ll never go out onto the water for recreational purposes without SafeTrx,” Jarrod says. And, Shaun assures us, neither will he. He has also retired his boat.
The RSA SafeTRX App monitors a vessel, swimmer or kayaker’s journey and alerts emergency contacts, who are nominated by the user (family and friends), should they fail to return to shore on time. Click here to download the app: https://www.nsri.org.za/water-safety/safetrx/
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