Kayak Safety, Preparation & A Great White Attack


On Oct. 3, 2014, my good friend and fellow co-founder of Central Coast Kayak Fishing, Ryan Howell was attacked by an estimated 16-20 foot great white shark off Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  I will not attempt to tell Ryan's story - that's his to tell and I wasn't fishing with him at the time. However, as this happened to my partner that I started our kayak fishing club with 5 years ago, it hit really close to home.  I'd like to discuss being prepared for one of the worst case scenarios a kayak fisherman can face.

Kayak fishing in the ocean - it can be a terrifying thought for some.  For others like myself and many of the fishermen in our club, we live for it.  Through the years of fishing, learning from others experiences and our own observations, we have come to adopt a list of gear we ALWAYS take when venturing into open water on big blue. 

Being prepared isn't an option - it's a necessity.  Yesterday, solid preparation most likely saved a good friend from serious injury if not saving his life. 

Minimum gear recommendations for the ocean:  Dress for immersion, PFD, VHF Radio, Compass and preferably a GPS, Hand Pump, Practice Self-Rescue, The Buddy System. 

Dress for immersion:  You never know what's gonna happen on the ocean.  The weather and swell can change quickly.  Maybe you hook into something huge that pulls you overboard.  Maybe a seal or sea lion comes by and tries to steal your catch.  Maybe a huge set comes through and knocks you off your kayak. Maybe a great white shark attacks you. 

Always dress for immersion.  Sure it can be a bit uncomfortable and make you hot.  Where we fish the water temp is usually between 52-56 degrees and air temps range from low 50's in the morning up to high 90's in the afternoon.  Yet I constantly see people go out without a wet or dry suit - just a t-shirt and shorts.  A t-shirt and shorts will not help if you end up in the water and your kayak drifts away.  If you are dressed properly and something happens you are left with a couple options (1) to swim a mile, two or three to shore or (2) float in your PFD and radio for help if you have one.  Hypothermia will get the better of you if you are not prepared - I guarantee it.  Best to get that wet suit on before launching.

Personal Floatation Device (PFD):  It can't be stated enough - if you only go out with one safety item this should be it.  WEAR YOUR PFD!

VHF Radio:  There are many models out there but I highly recommend a floating version such as ICOM IC-M36.  With a 1 button push you are on Ch. 16 stright to the Coast Guard and surrounding vessels monitoring the channel.  In my opinion, this one device is probably what helped Ryan the most after the attack.  He instantly called out "MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY" and a fishing boat close by responded to help get him out of the water and tow the kayaks back to the landing.  This is also useful if everybody in your fishing party has one and you get separated.  These radios usually have a 2-5 mile radius.  I've been out when the fog has come in unexpectedly and my buddies were a few hundred yards away so we lost sight of each other.  Communication is key in this situation.  Trust me, you do not want to be on the ocean in an emergency saying to yourself, "I wish I had a VHF Radio".

Compass or GPS:  A GPS isn't just for marking your favorite spots.  I won't go out with a GPS and a compass.  My GPS won't be any good if my battery dies so always have a compass as a backup.  Again when the fog comes in it can be very disorienting and this will help you get back to shore safely.  In case of an emergency a GPS allows you to give pinpoint location to Coast Guard or other vessels. 

Hand Pump:  A hand pump will help pump water out of a kayak if it starts taking on water.  This can happen for many reasons.  A small unknown crack, a hatch that didn't seal correctly, or an overturned kayak.  Usually there is a combination of  two of these three things.  Read below about how  we used one to help save a guy at one of our tourneys.  Its a worthwhile $20-$40 investment - it might save you, a friend or someone you've never met.

Practice Self Rescue:  Have you ever practiced self rescue?  If you haven't - you should.  And do it again at the beginning of each season and a few times throughout each season.  While practicing in a controlled environment such as a swimming pool is recommended for your first time, you should also practice in the waters you fish with all the gear you would usually have with you.  I'd never recommend doing this alone whether in a river, lake or ocean.  Always have a buddy or two when practicing in a real world scenario.  In a swimming pool without any extra gear is one thing.  It's a completely different situation when you have rods, leashes and gear tangled up around you, there is current, wind and swell on top of that.  Practice by having your boat comepletely upside down.  Can you right the kayak?  Leverage is your best friend in this scenario.  Use it to your advantage.  Once your boat is turned back over, reach up and hold a handle closest to you then reach the handle across.  As you pull towards you with your hand closest to you, push away with the hand furthest from you.  This will keep the kayak from rolling on top of you.  There are some good you tube videos if you care to look for them.  Practice makes perfect.

The Buddy System:  I have to admit, I went out solo about 2 months ago for the first time in years.  I didn't like it - it just felt uncomfortable.  We have watched this sport explode over the last 10 years - there's always somebody to fish with.  Go out with a buddy.  I will never go out on the ocean alone again.  If I could say there is a 100% chance nothing will go wrong then I'd say go for it.  I don't think anybody really thinks that is reality - there is always a chance something can go wrong.  It's easy to get complacent with years of experience on the water.  If you find yourself in an emergency situation its always good to have a buddy with you. 

At one of the first CCKF tourneys years ago we rescued a guy in his 60's who went out alone and wasn't part of the tourney.  I was waiting for my buddy who was late and we launched about a half hour behind the rest of the guys.  As we started paddling we heard yells for help.  I suddenly saw a guy tangled in the kelp with his head going under the water as each swell came by.  He had a wet suit on but no PFD.  My Scrambler never moved faster.  As I appraoched him I saw a look of fear I never want to see again.  He held on to my kayak and I re-assured him it would be OK.  My buddy Clyde paddled out and got a few of the other guys, one of them Ryan, to come help.  This event made me purchase a radio and hand pump.  (It also helps if the guys you fish with are EMT's ) While this guy held on to my kayak he was able to get his legs untangled from the kelp.  His kayak had taken on a lot of water so we started pumping it out and using our booties to scoop out as much as we could.  Eventually we got him back to shore where he got warmed up.  The EMT's in our group checked him out, got him loaded up and on his way.

Back to my buddy Ryan Howell.  He was attacked by a great white shark that knocked him 8-10 feet into the air.  He was prepared, as much as one could be, in that situation.  He was dressed for immersion.  He was wearing his PFD.  He had a VHF radio.  He had a GPS.  He had a hand pump although that wasn't going to do anything with the damage his boat endured.  He practices self rescue.  He had two buddies with him - they were about 8 feet away when the attack happened.  After the attack Ryan had been pushed about 50 feet away and found himself utilizing his self rescue techniques to get onto the back of his buddy's kayak.  He used his VHF radio to call for help giving a responding fishing boat the coordinates.  He kept his cool and survived a brutal attack.  I know it will be a while but I look forward to getting back on the water with Ryan when he is ready.

If you like to fish on the ocean and regularly go without these items I can't tell you any more emphatically to go purchase them.  It may save your life or someone else's. 

In closing, I don't know what Ryan experienced other than terror - by his account it happened so fast there wasn't time to be scared - just react.  While thinking about it the day of the attack I literally got the chills at least 20-30 times..  The HeeBeeJeeBees for lack of a better term.  If you've seen the Chompy The Shark video, it's that kind of a feeling that just sends shivers down your spine.  I also thought of Ryan knowing he survived because he was well prepared.  All the things I speak of are necessities.  If Ryan's attack doesn't prove that to you then I guess you will have to experience it for yourself, but I don't recommend it.

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