For the past year I have been taking training classes, pushing my limits on paddles, and practicing my navigation skills, all to what end? I was preparing myself for a BCU 4 Star Leadership Assessment. On Oct 13th 2012 myself and 4 others: Amanda Cantel, Don Cheyette, Rob Freelove, & Levi Hogan had our skills and leadership abilities tested over 2 days down at the mouth of the Columbia River during the first big winter storm of the season.
Prior to this weekend, The Pacific Northwest had been experiencing some of the driest and mildest weather on record in decades. This had me concerned because in order for the assessment to run we had to have wind and we had to have waves. A week out I started watching the forecast and to my relief the weather patterns were starting to change. By the middle of the week, however, I got worried again as the forecast was calling for winds and waves far in excess of the limitations for an assessment.
COASTAL WATERS FROM POINT GRENVILLE TO CAPE SHOALWATER OUT 10 NM- 0226 PM PDT THU OCT 12 2012
SAT...S WIND 15 TO 25 KT. WIND WAVES 3 TO 5 FT. W SWELL 6 FT.
SAT NIGHT...S WIND 20 TO 30 KT. WIND WAVES 4 TO 7 FT. W SWELL 7 FT.
SUN...S WIND 30 TO 35 KT. COMBINED SEAS 11 TO 13 FT.
SUN NIGHT...S WIND 20 TO 30 KT. WIND WAVES 4 TO 7 FT. SW SWELL 9 FT.
Despite the forecast I was excited and ready to go. I had my gear packed, the boat loaded, & my check lists checked thrice. I was all proud I had made a custom chart of the Ilwaco area the week before. I had magnetic north lines drawn, current stations color coded, and pre-drawn ranges and all laminated, it is slick. I had an epiphany on the drive south that we would probably not be paddling in the area that I had made the chart for, so I had to pick up a new chart on the way down. I then had to borrow a chart case as I left mine at home. This was my first hiccup for the weekend.
Saturday morning we all met up at Fort Stevens State Park. We met our assessors, Leon Sommé of Body Boat Blade and Jen Kleck of Aqua Adventures. Our first assignment was to find a place that we could go to demonstrate skills in 4 star conditions (winds to 24kts and seas to 6’). We talked about several areas and had decided to go check out Waikiki Beach at Deception Pass State Park.
We pulled into the parking lot and walked down to the beach and found steady winds from the south at 20 Kts and 4-6’ dumping surf. Since the forecast was calling for increased winds and seas we decided to get back in the cars and drive around to the boat launch on the other side of the park and paddle in Bakers Bay around Sand Island.
We paddled out from the boat launch taking turns as leaders. We paddled south down the east side of Sand Island right into the wind. Along the way, we were quizzed about navigation rules, aids to navigation, our location, etc. The wind was whipping, the rain was dumping and it was COLD. I think Jen was in a mild state of Hypothermia all day as she is from San Diego and not liking this cold weather. I pulled out my trusty 8 person Bothy Bag, which I purchased from a little shop on Orcas Island, and had our lunch protected from the elements.
A Bothy Bag is a an emergency shelter that protects you from wind and rain to trap and combine the body heat from several people.
After lunch we had a fun down wind run and took advantage of as many waves as we could demonstrating our ability to catch waves and execute stern rudders to control the direction of our boats. As we reached the north end of the Sand Island Leon had an all in towing drill for us. I cant wait to inflict, I mean teach it to my friends. . .
The rest of the afternoon was spent demonstrating personal skills such as solo rescues, rolls, & strokes. I learned that I have a lot more to learn about paddling backwards with a beam wind and an opposing current. The weather continued to worsen and by the time we were off the water the US Coast Guard had closed the River Bar to recreational traffic less than 36’ because of winds 30-40kts and breaking seas of 10-12’.
With a full day of paddling done we headed into Astoria to the Fort George Brewery for a well earned beer and hot food! We then got a homework assignment. We were told that tomorrow would be leading a group of 4 competent paddlers on a journey of 6-8 miles. We had to come up with a trip plan as a group in an area where we would be exposed to 4 star conditions. The weather forecast for Sunday was calling for similar weather.
COASTAL WATERS FROM POINT GRENVILLE TO CAPE SHOALWATER OUT 10 NM- 0226 PM PDT SAT OCT 13 2012
SUNDAY..SOUTH WIND 15 TO 25 KTS WITH GUSTS TO 40 KTS. CHANCE OF RAIN 90 PERCENT. RAINFALL AMOUNTS AROUND A HALF OF AN INCH.
SUNDAY NIGHT...RAIN...BREEZY. RAIN MAY BE HEAVY AT TIMES. SOUTH WIND 15 TO 25 KTS. GUSTS TO 40 KTS IN THE EVENING. CHANCE OF RAIN NEAR 100 PERCENT. RAINFALL AMOUNTS ONE INCH TO ONE AND A HALF INCHES.
We came up with 3 different plans, A, B, & C. Our first 2 plans were to drive up river to Skamokawa (ska-MOCK-away) and circumnavigate either Tenasillahe Island or Welch Island depending on the weather and our time frame. Plan C was to fall back to Astoria and paddle around Tongue Point.
In the morning, which by the way came WAY to early, we met our guinea pig paddlers and did intros and a quick brief on what our plan was before loading into the cars for an hour drive up the river.
When we arrived in Skamokawa I was disappointed to find no wind and flat waters. Leon promptly came up to me and said I was leading first and that we needed to find an area with 4 star conditions. So Plans “A” & “B” were out. A quick check on the iPhone and winds in Astoria were already above 20 Kts, so plan “C” was out too. It was time to punt. We talked with Mark Whitaker for some local area knowledge. He suggested a launch point about 8 miles back at Grays Bay. He warned us that the launch was off the side of the road and rocky. When we arrived there 30 minutes later, we found a launch at the side of the road and down a 6-8’ nearly vertical embankment with a rocky landing that was mostly submerged. The winds were blowing from the south at 10-12kts and wind waves were 1-2’ so we made the launch work and were able to get everyone on the water without incident.
I started leading the group on a crossing over to Rocky Point and immediately began sizing up the group of guinea pig paddlers. I could tell a few in the group were already a little apprehensive. About 10 minutes later the wind picked up to 15 kts and waves increased to 2’. I stopped the group and re assessed their comfort level and abilities and made the decision to scrap the crossing and head north along the shore line instead. A few minutes had passed and the winds increased to 15-20kts and the waves were now 2-3’ and occasionally breaking. One of the folks in the group was having difficulties getting their boat turned around and then even making headway into the winds. I made the decision to stop the journey and find a safe place to land. I had Levy and Amanda place the person with boat control issues in a tow while I stayed with the other 3 paddlers. I was then told that we would need to land back at the cars and to make it happen. Levi and Amanda placed their paddler in a rafted tow so I sent Rob down to help out and set up a double tow. Once the rafted tow was reunited with the group we all headed back to our cars. I sent Don in to land first and assist paddlers as they landed. We had 2-3’ waves now crashing on to the beach shifting the large logs we used to park the boats on when we launched. I started sending in paddlers one at a time while working out a plan on getting our rafted paddler into the beach. I disconnected Rob from the tow which left Amanda to anchor the raft in the wind which allowed her to ease the rafted tow into the beach where Don and Jen were able to stabilize the boat and allow me to disconnect Amanda and allow Levi to peel off. In the end we all landed safely without incident, for the most part.
So back on land again everyone was in good spirits including the person that had to be rafted. We quickly loaded the cars and headed back up river to Skamokawa to try and finish the remainder of the assessment. As we returned to Skamokawa from our journey, the rain came back and just dumped on us. As we were loading the cars in the pouring rain, Leon and Jen called us into the middle of the parking lot. . . expecting more directions to the local bar for a debrief, Leon informed us that we had all passed! High Fives and cheers went around and a big weight was lifted from our shoulders.