PaddleWise Discussion on PFDs in Surf and Rip Currents

Date: Thu, 12 Nov 1998 08:56:08 -0800
From: Philip Torrens 
Subject: [Paddlewise] PFDs in surf

Scott wrote:
>As a beach lifeguard I obviously didn't have a PFD
>on.  The lack of a PFD also increased my diving ability.  Has anyone
>tried to dive under a wave with a PFD on?  What happens?

Most of my swimming in surf with a PFD has been no problem. This occurs
when I'm surf kayaking on the West Coast. Naturally, my own roll is
bombproof, but occasionally I will deliberately "blow a roll" just so my
less skilled companions do not develop an inferiority complex -).
As you get closer to shore, you simply swim like hell as the waves pick you
up, and kick just enough to "hold your place" as the water drains back out
to sea (the same sort of technique you would use for moving through surge
with SCUBA gear on, for those who dive.)
Years ago, in winter on Lake Ontario, I did wind up swimming involuntarily.
I had been knocked over and had wet exited. This was in my pre-paddle leash
days, and by the time I had surfaced, the wind had snatched my empty and
buoyant sea-kayak far out of reach (it made shore with no problem, and way
ahead of me). Anyway, on that day, some weird conjunction of wind and wave
meant that I got caught being endlessly "cycled" a few hundred feet
offshore. The incoming wave would throw me forward a bit, then the ebb
would take me back to where I had been. Even in my wetsuit, the water was
very cold, and the situation was no joke. The solution turned out to be
taking the dive knife off my ankle - one of those Rambo jobs, but with a
pry end rather than a point. I would ride in on the ingoing wave. In the
brief lull I would dive - fighting the buoyancy of the PFD, which was less
in fresh water than it would be in salt - and plant the knife in the sand.
I would hold with both hands as the outflow ran around me, then surface to
begin the cycle again. It only took ten or so such cycles before I was in
water shallow enough that incoming waves no longer knocked me over.

Anyway, one experience, any others out there?

Philip T.  

Date: Thu, 12 Nov 1998 18:05:26 -0500 From: "Kathy Bliven" Subject: Re: [Paddlewise] PFDs in surf you were lucky. years ago i mounted tripod towers in Lake Ontario. plan 1 was to use steel stakes to hold guywires in place. however the bottom was not sand, it was flat rock! so i went to a mountain climbing store and got pitons... sand near shore, was good for you. while there in early december, i experienced 43 degree water for extended periods in a wetsuit. cold is real. for me, wetsuits don't get it below 50 degrees...fortunately i did not get a winter job diving in one of the NY finger lakes, i didn't really want to wear a drysuit for diving. dry suits for kayaking are bad enough. your surf landing saga is quite interesting. bye bye bliven
Date: Fri, 13 Nov 1998 00:27:24 -0500 From: Scott Ives Subject: Re: [Paddlewise] PFDs in surf - watch for rip tides! Ok, I'm on my soapbox again! I apologize for being so gabby. I generally don't have much to add substantively to this group. However, I really do know about the ocean surf, so please excuse my preaching ... Phil is describing a classic rip tide. And Phil, please excuse me, but you did exactly the wrong thing. You "clawed" your way back in with your knife, but probably expended must of your strength and energy in the process. First let me explain what a rip is. It is a kind of hole or ditch in the sand where the water continually re-circulates back to sea. It is very strong - usually you can't swim against it. It feels like an outgoing escalator. They are very easy to see from shore. They have a muddy appearance caused by the kicked up, recirculating sand. Rips are generally no more than 50 feet across, although I've seen giant rips almost a block long. The procedure for escaping a rip's jaws is simple. Just swim parallel to shore until you feel the pull of the rip dissipate. If you are a strong swimmer, you can cut diagnally through a rip. As guards, we would intentionally swim out in a rip - just like taking an outgoing escalator! Rips are great as long as you are going out! So folks if you are in the ocean (or even if you are in your kayak) and you are not making forward progress, try swimming parallel to shore for a while, and then try again. - Scott
Date: Fri, 13 Nov 1998 01:39:01 -0800 From: Dave Kruger Subject: Re: [Paddlewise] PFDs in surf Scott has diagnosed this experience as a rip tide (rip current) situation, and suggested Phil might have avoided the problem by swimming parallel to the beach to get out of the rip. I think Scott's right on, there. As for the buoyancy of the PFD being a problem (can't get down), I'd like Phil's scan on that, also. In *large surf,* I think a PFD contributes to "maytagging." We had a long discussion on Wave~Length (precurser to Paddlewise) about this issue, which I don't think we need to repeat. I suspect one's personal experience, especially whether a person has had experience with *large* surf will shape a person's belief about the PFD in *large* surf issue. If the surf is 4 foot or smaller, the PFD is not a hindrance to me (it is easy to get under 4-footers when a wave passes by). Over 6 feet, I think the PFD *may* be a problem, depending on the skill and experience of the swimmer. An inexperienced swimmer, caught in the impact zone in large stuff, is in for a thrashing, PFD or not! I have not seen this myself, but others say when the Coast Guard rescue swimmers don the humongous "bunny suit" survival suits common to commercial fishing vessels, and allow them selves to get caught in big surf (part of their training), it's funny as hell to watch! - -- Dave Kruger Astoria, OR long-ago body surfer
Date: Fri, 13 Nov 1998 08:08:11 -0500 From: "Sisler, Clyde" Subject: RE: [Paddlewise] PFDs in surf - watch for rip tides! In a worst case scenario, how far out could a rip extend before it weakens?
Date: Fri, 13 Nov 1998 11:33:49 -0500 From: Scott Ives Subject: Re: [Paddlewise] PFDs in surf - watch for rip tides! Everyone has this fear of rip tides taking you out to France. It is unfounded. I don't recall being in a rip that extended past the breakers. In any event, the PULL of the rip wears off before the rip itself. Once you feel that pull cease, you can just start swimming parallel to shore. - Scott
Date: Fri, 13 Nov 1998 09:03:45 -0800 From: Philip Torrens Subject: [Paddlewise] rip currents (rip "tides") Dave wrote: I think Dave and Scott are quite right. So-called rip "tides" of course, are not directly tidal (tidal effect is minimal in the Great Lakes). Rather they are simply the channels, or rivers within the sea where water that has been "piled up" too high, whether by tide and/or wind waves, drains back out to the main body of water. D & S are also right, that as a general principle, fighting a rip is a dangerous and futile effort. I'm a big fan of a "judo" approach to paddling, where you try to work with and use the forces of the ocean to your own purposes. Bracing on the very wave that threatens to capsize you, ferrying across currents, and "going with the flow" to let a rip current carry you and your boat out through the surf zone or flush you out of danger if you've capsized, are all good examples of "judo" paddling. All that said, and recognizing that my understanding of and experience with rips is far greater today than it was then, I'm not sure I'd have done much different. This particular beach was small, at the tip of a point, and the only landable area for miles. My concern with letting myself be moved parallel to shore would have been that I'd have been swept beyond the point or opposite unlandable shore. Regarding the "problem" of PFD buoyancy in surf: I'd have to say that this might be one of the few arguments for using an inflatable PFD that I personally would find compelling. I know that had I been coming through the surf in SCUBA gear, I'd have tugged the low pressure inflator to quick dump all the air out of my BC, and crawled in along the bottom. (Of course, I'd also have had the advantage of not needing to come up for air.) An inflatable, and therefore deflatable, PFD, while it would need to be manually re-inflated after the initial cartridge inflation, might be handy to reduce "maytagging" in surf. Overall, I prefer a foam PFD, since I remember from diving that the cartridge inflators on BCs rapidly became useless unless carefully maintained. A foam PFD would also stand up to bashing on rocks and shelly reefs better than an inflatable one, and indeed would offer some protection to the wearer. (I've found you can actually swim ashore on some very brutal-looking cliffs if you position yourself in the wave so that you are just behind the main impact - the wave hits the rock and bounces off, forming a "cushion" of water for you.) In general, I favour the KISS approach to design - with a foam PFD, there's no worry about whether it will deploy properly, since as long as you're wearing it, it IS deployed properly. Those of you who remember me praising the virtues of the Back-Up CO2 cartridge-inflated rescue-aid/paddle float may think I'm being inconsistent here, but: 1. "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself . .. I encompass multitudes..." (The Walt Whitman defense) 2. The CO2 mechanism in the Back-Up is sheltered in a housing, rather than exposed constantly to the brine the way the mechanism on a PFD is.=20 3. If it did fail to inflate, it can be manually inflated, so you're no worse off than if you'd just had a regular inflatable paddle float. An interesting thread. I hope we get more comments from those with experience in surf, and/or inflatable PFDs. Yours swimmingly, Philip T.