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  • Phil Keetley

Sea Kayaks & Lifeboats: Lessons

During our last Sea Safety Week, we were hugely fortunate to get the local inshore Tignabruaich lifeboat, The James & Helen Mason to come and join one of our exercises.

The amazing RNLI

Interestingly, whilst the lifeboat crew had attended quite a few kayak incidents, all of them had been searching for a missing kayaker who had made it to the shore. The highly skilled crew had never actually encountered professional sea kayakers who were attempting to self rescue.

Acute angina attach and capsize

The exercise involved our intrepid group of five Sea Safety Students operating as a team, with a plant in the group in the form of Duncan Greene of Greene Adventures (and now self-certified Equity Card holder), who on a signal from me suddenly suffered an acute and severe angina attack, causing an inevitable (and dramatic) capsize. Being at the end of the training week, the team were excellent, quickly controlling the group, effecting an injured paddler rescue, setting up a rafted tow and making for the nearest sensible landing point.

Injured paddler rescue

The medic on the raft provided excellent medical care (the course includes a Rescue Emergency Care Outdoor Emergency Care 1st Aid Course) including monitoring the airway, talking a pulse, checking for and administering appropriate medications and keeping the casualty warm and fed.

Excellent scoop rescue and rafted tow

The student group leader made a rapid MAYDAY call to Belfast Coastguard (actually our shore based contact on channel 8) and requested medical evacuation. Little known to him was that the local RNLI Lifeboat crew were now actually en route.

A slow moving Atlantic 85 - look at the wake!

The crew initially struggled to find us, despite having our approximate location and there being nine multi-colour kayaks in a F3 chop. Their first sighting was of a luminous peaked cap worn by one of the observers - reminding us all of the importance of being seen at sea. The second issue was the huge wake caused by the Atlantic 85 rib, even at slow speeds. The crew held back whilst they worked out how fast to approach. Our group of experienced kayakers managed well, but less experienced folk might be overwhelmed by the wake, even at slow speeds.

The welcome helping hands of the RNLI

The RNLI crew were expert at manoeuvring their boat to come alongside. It was not straightforward though, I had deliberately created a multiple inline tow with plenty of rope in the water to make our students and the crew really think hard about the rescue. It remains a great relief though when the calm crew come alongside to provide assistance.

Medical Handover using ATMIST acronym

Our student medic provided a medical handover to the RNLI medic. The Tignabruaich crew have extended medical training and equipment to Casualty Care standards due to their remote location, and very much appreciated a formal, succinct but comprehensive medical handover, well rehearsed by our students throughout our sea safety course.

Casualty handling from the raft to the lifeboat

The RNLI crew had never actually managed a casualty from a towed kayak raft before. We did two casualty lifts: the first a seemingly straightforward one with a conscious casualty able to self assist. Even then and in the fairly benign F3 chop it required careful boat handling skills by the coxswain, as well as thought and clear communication from our students who were assisting and maintaining the stability in the raft.

Our second attempt was a worst case scenario, with Duncan playing an unconscious floppy casualty. This required more thought, and our combined solution was for what we have termed the 'Reverse Scoop.' After briefing the RNLI crew on the plan, we carefully tipped Duncan's boat on to its side and slowly slid him out of his boat, whilst the RNLI crew supported his head and maintained his airway. This casualty handling technique is almost the exact opposite of putting an unconscious casualty back in their boat with a scoop rescue. It worked well, placing the casualty in the right position for the RNLI crew to roll him up the sponsons into the lifeboat.

A wee video clip of the training:

There are a great number of these Atlantic 85 vessels operated by the RNLI, often in the sorts of inshore locations that sea kayakers frequent. We have therefore identified the following key lessons based upon our experience to help the RNLI help you in an emergency:

1. Visibility is key, think about what you wear. Carry distress and pinpoint flares and get training in using them.

2. Do not underestimate the wake caused by a 27.7 foot rib!

3. Lifeboat crews are not necessarily experienced with dealing with rafted tows that inevitably have long lines in the water - be prepared to help them with clear communication.

4. Have the leader drop back and draw the crews attention with a pin point flare - and be prepared to provide a coherent, succinct summary of the situation and the help required.

5. Be prepared to provide a clear casualty handover (A-T-M-I-S-T)

6. The crew can manage a conscious casualty who can help them fairly well.

7. For an unconscious casualty, consider a 'Reverse Scoop' manoeuvre, having discussed it with the crew in advance. Practise if you can.

Sea Kayak Argyll & Bute and Greene Adventures run two Sea Safety Courses per year in the Spring and Autumn.

All of us at Sea Kayak Argyll & Bute, Greene Adventures and our students were hugely grateful for the support of the RNLI on our exercise, and of course for all that they do 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Thank you.


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