Type III fun while kayak-diving

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Brett Hatch

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I went out yesterday with my main diving buddy, who is also my housemate and a good friend of mine for over 10 years. We intended to do some urchin culling for the kelp restoration program that's going on at Tanker's Reef in Monterey. He has not yet taken the training course, so we planned to dive near the grey buoy at the NE corner of the site, where untrained divers are welcome to cull urchins. Since the site is so far from shore, we decided to take my sit-on-top kayaks out there. Which was perhaps a questionable idea, since we were both a little rusty on them, and since my buddy had not been diving at all in several months. It was a hot and sunny day for Monterey. We got a late start, but found a parking spot in the gravel lot near Monterey Bay Kayaks.

It took us about an hour to set up our scuba rigs, suit up, and schlep the kayaks and gear out to the waterline. We shoved off around 1:30pm. My buddy opted to wear his drysuit with thick undies that day, so he was kind of overheating by the time we hit the water. He hopped into the water for a spell, which helped to cool him down. It didn't seem like there was a ton of wind, but there was some steadily-increasing chop. We paddled out about a mile, and moored the bow of my boat the buoy, and the bow of his to the stern of mine. It took me awhile to get the boats moored correctly, and during this time, the chop had picked up considerably. Between the overheating, the stress of it all, probably some motion sickness, and just working too hard, my buddy lost his lunch. He didn't look so good, but we decided to push on.

We began donning our gear. As my buddy went to put on his second fin, a good-sized wave came in, he lost his balance and flipped his kayak, dropping his negative fin. He duck-dived for it and managed to grab hold of it. I had my back to him so I didn't immediately notice, until he called for help. I donned my fins and mask, and then went over to lend him a hand. Ends up that the large gear hatch wasn't secured shut all that well, or maybe not at all, it was definitely open while the kayak was upside-down for awhile. We closed the hatch, flipped the boat back over, and for a moment it seemed like we were fine. My buddy had lost his mask, perhaps it was loose in the hatch, I'm not sure. But he had brought a backup mask along, so we decided to go ahead and move forward with the plan to dive, and began once again to don scuba gear.

He climbed back onto the boat, but soon began to overheat, so pulled off the upper part of his drysuit and the top of the 2-piece undies, which was already drenched -- I thought with water, but in hindsight, he hadn't yet flooded the suit, so it was probably sweat. The boat had taken on a lot of water, which made it difficult to remain balanced, so shortly after that, it flipped again. That caused his drysuit to entirely flood with water. I paddled over to steady the boat while he climbed back on top, I could tell from the look in his eyes that the day had just gone from kind of a bummer, to seriously bad and possibly dangerous. We decided to call it a day

Between the water inside the kayak and the water in his suit, it was utterly impossible to get back to a steady state, so we sat and breathed for a moment, and tried to think of what to do. He had the idea for us to switch boats, and I agreed that it would improve the situation. We also had the idea to remove his drysuit, but I was really afraid of the scenario where he would be halfway through doffing the suit, and at that moment lose his balance, with his legs too compromised to swim effectively. So we decided to first get him onto my boat, then deal with the drysuit afterward.

We figured one or both boats would capsize again, and we wanted to make sure he would be OK, even with his completely flooded drysuit. So I hopped off my kayak to steady it for him, and we agreed that if either vessel flipped again, we wouldn't worry about that, and would just focus on keeping his body afloat. He tried to get onto my boat and, as predicted, capsized his kayak once again, but mine stayed up. With his hand on my boat he was able to just relax for awhile and catch his breath. Since we able to kind of relax here, and he was floating, we decided to remove his boots and his suit while in the water. It was kinda hard to get decent leverage, but we were able to pull it off.

Once he was no longer wearing a giant bag of water, getting onto the not-flooded boat was a piece of cake. So we stuffed his drysuit into the hatch of the not-flooded boat, and turned our attention back to the flooded one. With my wetsuit peeled halfway off and no lead, I was super buoyant, floating at chest-level, so it was easy to work with my hands, but my chest kept getting scratched by the serrated kelp. I tried two or three times to get on top of it, but it was too unstable and heavy. My buddy offered to take the scuba rig and put it near his lap -- now that he was in a good place, that was actually a really good idea. So I removed it from the flooded boat, and we were able to grunt it onto the good boat without capsizing it. He didn't have a great way to secure it to the boat, but it was sorta balanced on there between his legs. And with the wing full, we'd be able to easily retrieve it if it got loose.

I figured it would be a lot easier to get back onto the flooded kayak now that it was 40 or 50 pounds lighter, but it was still damn near impossible. I tried it a three times times, and then gave up. I noticed that his weight belt was still secured to the boat by a boltsnap and a bungee, but the belt was in the water. No wonder the boat was so unstable, there was a 16 pound anchor attached to the worst possible place for it to be! So we moved the belt to the not-flooded kayak. Still, I was completely unable to get back ontop of the flooded boat. Between the water inside and the waves rolling through, it just kept on capsizing every time I tried to get on top and seated correctly.

We caught our breaths, and tried to think of what to do. I heard an ambulance or maybe a fire truck going by somewhere on shore, and I joked that maybe they were coming for us. My buddy saw a couple of pelicans hanging out, and joked that maybe they could smell our fear, and were waiting for us to become a meal. We sat there for a few minutes, and came up with a bunch of crappy, unworkable ideas, before a plausible one came to his mind: we could lash the boats together, and he could tow the flooded boat back to shore, while I donned some fins and kicked back in that way. It would suck, but it would work, eventually.

Since my fins were inside the good kayak, buried under his drysuit, we decided that I would wear his fins. So I opened the flooded boat's hatch to grab them. I took a peek inside, and when I saw how much fricking water was in there, my heart sank a little. The water was about 6 inches high, maybe a third or a half the volume of the hull. There was at least 20, perhaps 50 gallons. But at least I got his fins donned, and the hatch secured. I had seen his boots floating around in there, and a lightbulb went off in my head. I re-opened the hatch, and started to use one of his boots to bail water out of the hull. They were squishy neoprene wetsuit-style booties, so not the most effective for bailing, but each scoop did bring some water out, and while wearing the fins, I was plenty stable.

I settled into the work, and committed myself to keep bailing until there was less than an inch of water. My buddy saw what I was doing, and had the genius idea to use a water bottle instead. He was so obviously right that I laughed out loud, the fact that my first thought was to use a goddamned floppy shoe instead, was a real face-palm moment. So he handed me a 1-liter disposable water bottle, and I used my EMT shears to cut the top off of it. I began bailing the water out much more effectively, and kept going for a long time. I'm not sure how long, but I had to switch arms a couple of times, so it was definitely a good while. Once it got to the point where I needed to tip the kayak to one side to get a good scoop's worth, I figured the boat would finally, finally be stable enough to get back on easily, and it was. Yes!

We paddled on for a bit before realizing that my boat was now almost entirely empty, while his boat had 2 entire scuba rigs, both our weight belts, and whatever water his drysuit had brought along with it. So we decided to move the one scuba rig from between his legs back to the tank well in the previously-flooded boat. I steadied the two kayaks while he pushed it into place, we were both surprised that he was able to do it without capsizing either boat. I boltsnapped it to the boat, and we headed for shore. Now that we both had reasonably good setups again, the paddling was dramatically easier, even through 2 foot high chop going diagonal to us, and heading into the wind.

We made it back to shore with no more problems, slowly hauled all of our gear back into the truck, and headed home around 5:30. So we were out there for about 3.5 hours, 3 of which were fighting one problem after the next, while trying to recover from catastrophic failure. After we got home, cleaned and put away the gear, we called in some Thai food, and discussed the day's many issues over dinner. Here's a non-exhaustive list of lessons we came up with:

[post is too long, continuing below]
 

Brett Hatch

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* We should have worked up to this a little at a time. It's essentially an apex dive for us, diving in non-ideal conditions with weird gear and weird problems. We had both been regular-old-kayaking recently, but neither one of us had dived off a kayak since last year, and my buddy hadn't had a dive of any kind since March or April. So we had plenty of rust, did not do a good job of preparing things, did not have the little tips and pointers fresh in our minds, and were simply unprepared and did not come into it with a respect for the potential problems in our minds

* In particular, we should have done a better job of always keeping everything secure, all the time. He should not have been putting on his fins while his hatch was open. We both know that, we've discussed it many times in the past, and have always been more disciplined about it. But for some reason, in that moment, it seemed OK. Maybe because we'd never actually flipped a kayak before. Naturally, the first flip came when we were rusty, hot, tired, annoyed, in marginal conditions, and a mile from shore. I guess our old pal Murphy was watching that day.

* We should have pulled out on this earlier than we did. Once my buddy vomited, that should have been a giant waving red flag to both of us. Probably we should have bailed out sooner than that too, but that was a crystal clear sign to call it a day, and for whatever reason we ignored it and decided to push forward. I don't have a good explanation for why we chose to keep going after that, maybe we were too macho, thinking with our egos instead of with our brains.

* We should have brought life vests, and we should have used them. Talk about normalizing deviance -- I know that you're supposed to have these things handy, whether you think you'll need them or not. But somehow I have gotten into the habit of not bothering to bring them along, since I have never once needed them, and since we were wearing thick exposure gear that is super buoyant. Which is true in a way, but it sure as hell wasn't the case once my buddy's suit flooded. I hope I won't be foolish enough convince myself that it's OK to leave these behind after this experience.

* We should have bailed the water out of the boat sooner. We tried several dumber options before this that could have helped, but none of them helped enough to make much progress. Removing the water from the boat is easy and obvious, and as long as it was in there, everything else was so much harder than it needed to be. Bailing the water out of the boat should have been the first or second solution that came to mind, not the tenth.

* I should have moored the boats such that we were facing each other. This way while we are gearing up, we would be in a better position to be a good and helpful buddy. Say, to remind each other to close the hatch, or to more quickly notice when your friend is in trouble and needs immediate help. By setting my boat such that my back was to my buddy, I did not realize how rough of a time he was having until he was already past the tipping point.

* Maybe diving off of a kayak with a drysuit is not such a good plan. It wasn't the first time my buddy had used a drysuit for this, and the last time he did, he felt great about it. But the problem with a drysuit is that on a challenging day, if you have to work hard, you end up getting really hot with no good way to cool off besides partially removing it. And once you do peel it partway off, you now are in a situation where if you enter the water, it will immediately flood with gallons of heavy water, provide little to no positive buoyancy, and do an absolutely s*** job of keeping you warm. Whereas I wore my wetsuit peeled down halfway, and it kept me cool enough while working, super buoyant while in the water, and warm enough while I was in the water trying to solve various problems. I would estimate that I was in the water with it halfway on like this for 2 hours total, and I never got cold, since I was working most of that time, and the naked part of my body was mostly above the waterline.

We came up with a bunch of other food for thought, but those were the main ones that I took away from it. We came home tired, scraped up, and a little bruised. I think next time will go a lot better :)

Edit to add: oh yeah, one more lesson learned. Getting a late start at this site like we did was pretty dumb. Even though conditions have been good recently, this site is relatively unprotected, so the wind picks up every afternoon, that causes a fair amount of chop. Which, once again, I know this, but was either not thinking or just not respecting it.
 

Jcp2

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Glad that you got back safely on land. Those sit on top kayaks seem to be okay just until the water gets a bit wavy. Are there other options other than kayaking with a whole bunch of gear on top? A tandem run as a single? A tow behind raft? A jet ski? A small RIB?
 

runsongas

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were you donning and doffing gear in the water or while trying to still sit on the kayak? when I was taught to dive off a kayak, all gear donning/doffing was done in the water. DS doesn't have great solutions outside of just splashing water periodically, buying an expensive and less durable breathable DS, or just switching back to a wetsuit/semidry.
 

rmssetc

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Glad that you got back safely on land. Those sit on top kayaks seem to be okay just until the water gets a bit wavy. Are there other options other than kayaking with a whole bunch of gear on top? A tandem run as a single? A tow behind raft? A jet ski? A small RIB?

As someone who's never been on a sit-on-top kayak, but vaguely remembers a multi-day canoe trip in my youth, here's a suggestion that's worth exactly what you're paying for it... What about lashing the two kayaks together in parallel, possibly with open space (the paddle length) between them. That may give you a nice stable catamaran to gear up, right next to your buddy. Netting lashed on top of the paddles, between the kayaks, would provide a lot of surface area for putting down lightweight gear. No way for either boat to flip. Or it might be really unpleasant in the chop...
 

Brett Hatch

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Glad that you got back safely on land. Those sit on top kayaks seem to be okay just until the water gets a bit wavy. Are there other options other than kayaking with a whole bunch of gear on top? A tandem run as a single? A tow behind raft? A jet ski? A small RIB?

Thanks, I'm glad too. Yeah, these are Scupper Pro TW's, which are suited pretty well for diving. They are pretty long at 15 feet, and there is a well in the just behind the seat that's big enough for a scuba rig. So you can set it up on shore, lash it to the boat, and it will be pretty secure, with the weight relatively low and sternward, which is good for stability. In front of the seat, there is the hatch which opens to the inner hull of the boat for storing stuff like fins, mask, gloves, hood, lunch and a beer, etc. If the hatch had been closed at the first flip, things would have gone a lot better for us. I've been on water rougher than we had yesterday without capsizing, but not with like a hundred extra pounds of scuba junk, overheating, and while task loaded.

There are other options to get out there. When I took the class last weekend, the instructors each had a DPV. Each instructor was able to tow 4 divers behind them, in a kind of "human centipede" formation. While we were out there, I also saw Keith Rootsaert and a couple buddies on a RHIB. It's my understanding that MaryJo is offering boat dives aboard the Beach Hopper II dive boat on Thursday mornings for essentially free (the figure I heard was $30 per diver per day, but I have not called her to confirm this). It's also possible to do a surface swim, there was another class happening at the same time last weekend, and they did it this way. It's a bit of a trek -- probably 300 yards walking on sand to the closest point of entry, then another 3-400 yards surface swim, with the current pushing somewhat toward shore most days.

I also have a set of doubles (so does my buddy), we were thinking about trying to do an under-water swim this way. We could get in at the point nearest the parking spot, instead of nearest the site. So would cut out most of the walking on sand, and since the water's only 35 feet deep or so, should have plenty of gas remaining when we arrive. Haven't tried this way yet, but I think it's doable. Even after what we went through, I still think the kayaks are a good option, but maybe others are better. I've never seen a jet ski out there, but if you've got one I can borrow, I'd give it a shot :cool:

were you donning and doffing gear in the water or while trying to still sit on the kayak? when I was taught to dive off a kayak, all gear donning/doffing was done in the water. DS doesn't have great solutions outside of just splashing water periodically, buying an expensive and less durable breathable DS, or just switching back to a wetsuit/semidry.

So I never took a class on kayak diving, just kinda watched some YouTube videos, talked to local divers, people who've done it before, and have been experimenting. I like to don my wetsuit, fins, mask, gloves, dive computer, and weight belt (in roughly that order) before I hop in. Then I partially deflate the wing so that the scuba rig still floats but is closer to neutral, don it in the water, and finally unclip it from the kayak. I don't normally dive with a snorkel, but for kayak diving, it can be really helpful, so I bring it. I'm glad I did yesterday, that's for sure.

As for the drysuit, yeah, I think it works well when things are going good. But when things started to turn bad on us, it quickly became a liability. There is probably a way to reduce or eliminate the risks it adds, but I can't think of one, so we'll probably be sticking to wetsuits for awhile.

As someone who's never been on a sit-on-top kayak, but vaguely remembers a multi-day canoe trip in my youth, here's a suggestion that's worth exactly what you're paying for it... What about lashing the two kayaks together in parallel, possibly with open space (the paddle length) between them. That may give you a nice stable catamaran to gear up, right next to your buddy. Netting lashed on top of the paddles, between the kayaks, would provide a lot of surface area for putting down lightweight gear. No way for either boat to flip. Or it might be really unpleasant in the chop...

My first thought is that with the boats lashed with something like a rope or bungee, the wind, current, and chop will all make you bump into one another quite a bit, so it might be pretty annoying. You would have a hard time paddling if you needed to change direction or move your kayak. But if you could lash them with something rigid to make essentially one big catamaran, then yes, I agree, it would be a lot harder to flip them. Not sure how you would achieve that, but if you could engineer it somehow, then it might be a good solution. I have seen a few ocean kayaks with a small outrigger on them, and they are super stable.
 

runsongas

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i would leave the fins for in the water, but rest is fine. del monte is a pretty painfully boring dive over the sand until you hit the shale beds, would not want to swim that either on the surface or underwater. definitely a use case for rhibs/kayaks/dpvs.
 

Brett Hatch

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Having a manual bilge pump might be a good idea.
Thanks for the pointer, I've never heard of these. You have in mind something like this, right?
6c221e86-b635-49ea-917f-c401e9f03115


At $20, it's pretty cheap insurance, I think I'll order 2.

i would leave the fins for in the water, but rest is fine.
My thinking was that I definitely want my fins on before my weight belt. And I want my weight belt on before I get in the water, so as to facilitate keeping it clipped to the boat whenever it's not clipped to me. But if the weight belt lashing is like 4-5 feet long, I could see putting the small stuff on first, then jump in, then don the fins, then the weight belt, then the scuba rig. I'll give it a shot that way and see if it's any easier, thanks for the tip.
 
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