Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A towed rescue by the KNRM - the Royal Netherlands Sea Rescue Institution

picture by Axel Schoevers

A rescue training in cooperation with the Lifeboat-crew of the KNRM was part of the program on previous editions of the NKB-Vlielandkamp. This year (the first time I did the overall-organization of the Vlielandkamp) we left the training with the KNRM out of the program: the KNRM was minimal staffed due to the september-holiday on Vlieland. But: instead of the training we had a rescue operation with the KNRM for real!

My feelings with the pictures and the story in this post are a bit double: I am happy and grateful about the safe rescue of Peter's seakayak, but I do also have a strong feeling that lifeboat-actions should be reserved for the real serious life threatening situations and feel a bit "guilty" the KNRM had to come in action to save an empty seakayak. Said that, I realize it's a thin line between an incident and an disaster.

What happened? Along the beach on the NW of Vlieland, from west to east three separate groups of each 10 seakayakers were active around the surf zone. Wind was SW 7 Bft. blowing along the beach, slightly offshore. With westerly winds there is powerful surf on the NW of Vlieland, increasing when the tide comes in. The most westerly group was landing through the surf zone, the group in the middle was doing exercises in the first part of the surf zone and I was launching the group most easterly through the surf zone. I was still standing on the beach, helping the last members of my group leaving the beach, when suddenly a lonely kayak drifted by, blown at high speed towards sea. I didn't notice a swimming kayaker nor anyone taking action. A few seconds (?) later Peter stood next to me, with panic in his eyes: he was part of the most westerly group, had lost his (new!) kayak during the landing in the surf and could only watch it disappear. With the biggest part of my group behind the surf zone, the last one just capsizing and swimming in the surf zone, I couldn't take action myself and decided to inform the Brandaris (the Dutch coastguard station on Terschelling) by VHF-radio. The coastguard immediately called the KNRM for assistance. At this very moment a pilot-boat came along in the fairway along the beach and noticed the empty kayak drifting away. The pilot got involved in the conversation between me and the coastguard, but didn't know if there was a swimmer. The pilot decided to ask the group of kayakers on the water what was going on. Note: this was my group at a safe distance behind the surf zone (still waiting for me to come and not knowing what exactly was going on). All this resulted in some confusion, and in the KNRM heading out full power looking for a kayaker in distress... As I heard this on the VHF-radio I repeated that the kayaker was safe on the beach. Some moments later the KNRM reported they recovered the kayak and that they would take it to the lifeboat station. As the rescue operation was finished, I headed out to my group (still waiting behind the surf zone) and paddled with the group to the harbour to pick up Peter's kayak at the lifeboat station.

It wasn't a experience you'd like to ask for, but from moments like this you learn a lot. Communication is so essential in a situation like this. There is communication on different levels: (1) the coordination of the rescue between (in this case) coastguard, lifeboat, pilot and kayakers, (2) the communication between the separate groups of kayakers and (3) the communication in the group itself between the leader and the members - quit difficult in the surf zone. The VHF-radio did a good job on level (1) - big advantage above a cell-phone is that the conversation on the radio can be heard by all involved. Some of my lessons:
(1) keep on repeating the complete message about the situation - in my first contact with the Brandaris I told the kayaker is safe at the beach. Later we talked about an empty kayak - leading to the confusion;
(2) do not monitor Channel 16, but the working channel of the Brandaris - Channel 2. It's idiot you have to make a choice like this: because of the regulations on legal Dutch VHF-radio's functions like "Dual and Triple Watch or scanning multiple Channels" are blocked...
(3) we can improve the intern communication on a big event like the Vlielandkamp.
After this operation we had a good talk with the members of the lifeboat-crew. Peter has visited the crew for a personal thanks.

!!!Once more for the crew from the Christien: thank you!!!

The KNRM is an organization mainly working with volunteers, not subsidized by authorities, but financed with gifts and donations. Do a good job and become a "Redder aan de wal"!

More advises about Managing the Surf Zone in the excellent article on Incident Management of Jeff Alan in the 3. issue of Ocean Paddler.


Rene said...

Hi Hans,

Interesting experience.

Nice lessons learned and good conclusions.

I guess the guy, letting his kayak go, had the best lesson not to let this happen again.


Hans said...

Hello René!

Peter indeed had a good lesson, and he was not the only one...

Of course (it's so essential I almost forgot to mention it) is the first lesson: always keep contact to your boat. But sometimes a wave in the surfzone gets so powerful "dat er geen houden aan is..." / that there is no choice but to let it go...


Anonymous said...

Hello Hans,
I've been thinking about the communication problem between you (on the beach) and the group (behind the surf zone)
On Spiekeroog I encountered a similar problem when a part of the group went through a zone with breaking waves and another part stayed behind.
the solution I worked out for similar situations where groups get split up: use the VHF; channel 15 or 17 for communication with other groupmembers elsewhere (who also need to have a VHF of course).

Wieger Tomassen