Sea kayaker going into rough surf by rocks

BCU 5 Star Training

Maine Island Kayak Co, Peaks Island, Maine

BCU Coaches: Steve Maynard & Tom Bergh

Participants: Jeff B, Thomas H, Jed L, Ned O, Chris P, Charles P, and Bill Z

I had wondered about BCU 5 Star training since the days of my first sea kayak lessons. You know, we’ve all heard stories about people who have actually passed the 5 Star test and lived to talk about it: mythical paddlers who don’t need food, water or sleep and can live for days in their boats with hardly a concern for the weather. You hear about how they do battle with huge surf and high winds, sea monsters and horrifying races that mere mortals couldn’t possibly handle… you know the stories can’t be true, but somehow…the image stays with you.

And so it was in this context that I had come to Maine Island Kayak Co’s 5 Star Training with visions of 18-hour days and super-human feats performed while dancing in “entertaining” conditions with fully loaded boats. I never envisioned myself taking part in this advanced training, but after my 4 Star assessment I was left with no valid excuse not to try it. It was time to face the challenges and grow as a paddler – or accept my limits.

Friday 8:00am:

The weekend started normally enough. We were 7 nervous Gore-Tex clad New Englanders with sea experience ranging from relative newcomer to 20 years, and ages ranging from 30 to 65. I was happy to recognize faces from previous trainings and pleased to be in such good company for what, I suspected, would be a challenging 3 days.

After discussing the instructors’ expectations, we immediately assembled in the MIKCo boathouse for a Sea kayakers studying navigationdiscussion on a range of navigation techniques and strategies. Like many of my fellow trainees, I had some exposure to Burch’s Basic Kayak Navigation and found it anything but basic. Somehow our instructors were able to cut through the haze and complexity and deliver the material in such a manner that it seemed a natural extension of our previous experiences. The whole discussion felt more like a casual conversation with friends than the much-feared training that I had held in such honored status since I started my BCU training.

The BCU 5 Star is a leadership award involving open sea kayaking in tidal streams and challenging conditions along exposed shores so, not surprisingly, the discussion soon turned to the causes and effects of weather systems on wind and waves and their interaction with landforms. The depth of understanding among the group was encouraging and surprising. Before long our newfound awareness of global causes of local weather patterns quickly led to dreams of paddling trips to challenging weather zone “hot spots” in the northern latitudes. Presuming, of course,  that we survived the weekend.

The coast of Maine is a beautiful and varied place to paddle, and Casco Bay is no exception. This day’s warm October sun was like a gift that you know you don’t deserve but graciously accept anyway. We headed out towards Cushing Island for some self-rescue practice, rolling and re-entering in the chop, a game of tag between the rocks and hard ledges, and intricate rescue scenarios. I suspect the afternoon was designed to let us relax and play in our heavily laden boats while the instructors assessed the depth of our judgment and rough water rescue skills. Most of the group faired pretty well.

Sea kayaker wet exiting from his boatComplicated rescue scenarios developed out of the interaction of the sea state, group dynamics, and the dance of personalities, highlighting the need for “big picture” thinking. As 5 Star paddlers, it’s as important to know when to follow as how to lead. Apparently satisfied that some of the basics were in place, Steve and Tom led us back to the MIKCo boathouse. For the record, I would like to state that I was tricked into letting go of my boat and further that that is something I have never, ever done before or since.

Once ashore, we were provided with a wonderful dinner so we could carbo-load in preparation for heading out the next day on a 2-day expedition and bivy. Soon after dinner my body started to tell me that it was time for a pasta-induced nap. Our coaches had other plans for us and quickly summoned us back to the boathouse for trip planning exercises.

We were tasked with planning out a challenging but safe multi-day trip in the Cobscook Bay area from Deer Island past Eastport to Grand Manan Island – waters that none of us had previously paddled. Interestingly, we came up with conflicting analyses on what the tides would do to the currents and the severity and timing of the hazards. To our credit, we did come to a consensus on acceptable paddling conditions and daily mileage goals. Unfortunately the evening came to a conclusion with our instructors identifying a major hazard, which we had missed, affectionately named The Old Sow. The Sow is a famous and dangerous whirlpool off Eastport and is generally considered the second largest in the Western Hemisphere. Despite our collective experience and a full library of resource materials, we failed to anticipate and plan around a whirlpool that can take large powerboats to the bottom. How were we to know? And so this is how the humbling began.

By 10pm, we were released on our own recognizance with a 7:30am start time for the following day. I welcomed the chance to test out my bivy gear (and remove the price tags) away from our instructors’ eyes, before our anticipated “real-life” use the next night. I was pleasantly surprised that everything worked as advertised with no surprises. Everyone bunked down early in anticipation of the days to follow. I spent the night dreaming about those mythical BCU 5 Star paddlers doing battle with all manner of sea monsters.

Saturday 7:30am:

After breakfast, we were asked to plan out three 50-120 mile expeditions: one in Scotland with only general information; another past Martha’s Vineyard with its complicated tides and strong currents; and the last back in Cobscook, very close to the Old Sow. We would not be caught making the same mistakes twice, so we poured over the available charts, reference materials and weather reports – twice! What were we missing? Where are the surprises hiding? As a leadership award the BCU 5 Star pushes us to think beyond our own wants and needs to plan a fun and safe trip in real world conditions and seas suitable for experienced (4 Star) paddlers. The effects of winds on tides and overall conditions determined when and where we could paddle. Intense consideration had to be given to the effects of tidal drift, races, overfalls and other hazards that could change the severity of the paddling within an hour’s time.

Ned and I paired up to plan a trip in the Hebrides in Western Scotland with only basic information. Pouring over the available reference materials, we found significant hazards amidst varied coastlines. Now, even as I write this I can’t stop thinking of paddling that trip in real life. Anyone want to go? Know any Scots with boats?

After lunch the journeying portion began, and we launched our expedition loaded kayaks into relatively thick Casco Bay fog. The plan was to paddle late into the night, bivy on an island and pilot through the surf zones and spring tides of outer Casco Bay. We had no idea of the intermediate destinations – we only knew we’d be in our boats for the next 30 hours. I could not help thinking that I would finally get to witness 5 Star mythology first hand! Visibility was less than one mile, not bad except our first target was a very small island three miles off called Outer Green. We decided to check the accuracy of our heading and aimed for a buoy 1.5 miles out. After about 30 minutes, the buoy appeared dead ahead, reinforcing our confidence to continue on to Outer Green with it’s rocky outcroppings on the very edge of Casco Bay. This was not a spot anyone would want to land or camp on (in fact it’s off limits most of the year as a bird refuge). We were pleased to have found it, just the same.Sea kayaker surveying a surf line

Our instructors asked the “leaders of the moment” to take us between Outer Green and Junk of Pork. Our inexperience lead us to lengthy risk analysis, starts and stops, attempts at shouting over the noisy surf and constant attention to avoid drifting into danger zones. Finally the leaders made the call. The surf was too extreme to go through, so we were led out and around in the safety of the deeper water. The leaders would have preferred to go through the slot, but to do so would have meant taking unnecessary chances. They made the wise choice, a choice worthy of a 5 Star leader.

As evening approached the fog blended the sea and sky together. I was asked to lead our group northeast to land on the southern end of Jewell Island while keeping everyone safe. There was intense surf on Green Island Ledges, a nasty underwater reef highlighted by the standing seas and crushing surf which almost exploded on the sharp folded rocks. By dead reckoning I carefully tracked our progress along a safe outside course with only the boomers as a reference point. An hour later, my careful calculations fixed our position at a point nearly a mile from our actual location. I was considering turning in toward the wrong island. Guess I’ll re-read Burch’s chapter on dead reckoning another time or two. The humbling continued….

A quick snack stop on the real Jewell Island confirmed my error and gave my friends a chance to develop their jokes about how I had discovered a new island “Little Jewell”. We made our way behind “Big Jewell” in the calmer, protected waters. At this point we discovered that one of our teammates was suffering from nausea brought on by a touch of the flu. We approached this as any other challenge: we set basic rules, safety and communication plans. After ensuring that our teammate was safely put ashore on “Big Jewell”, we paddled northeast into the darkening bay, threading our way through the shoals toward Broken Cove. We approached the cove as night descended.

Wasn’t this just great… Solid mature 4′-6′ swells,15 knot winds, spring tides, thick fog, and now a moonless, starless night! I mean NO visibility. We were instructed to quickly gear up for night paddling. No rafting up was allowed for 5 Star trainees; each of us was required to sort our night gear within the swells while being careful not to capsize or flood our day hatches. We donned green glow sticks slung over our backs to identify ourselves, and various versions of headlamps and flashlights to experiment with when we needed light.

Our next destination, Eagle Island, is the former home of Admiral Peary of North Pole fame. But first we needed to avoid the obstacles through Broken Cove while correcting for tidal drift and approach Eagle from a very specific direction – right between the rocks on either side of a small beach. We could hear the breakers ahead and around us and gratefully found the channel markers confirming our location. If we turned in too early along the wide shoal west of Eagle Island the wrong turn could find a paddler side surfing into the rocks on thus pitch-black night. We all listened carefully, working to see the shapes with our ears. No one wanted to test their night surf skills quite yet. Eager to get some blood moving in my legs and incorrectly thinking I knew this beach, I offered to go in first. I made it to the steeply sloped cobble in small but dumping surf with a beautiful example of how not to land. I nearly made it ashore as the surf spun my boat… my instinctive high brace only reminding me that I wasn’t actually in the boat. Oh well, I needed to cool off anyway.

Damp, dark, and cool, we were asked to cook a hot meal for ourselves, eat and stow our gear, and launch in about half an hour. We joked that the hopping sand fleas were an excellent source of protein and tasted like chicken. Truth be told, that meal did taste better than normal.

After dinner the real fun started. Now the task was to navigate between Bates Island, 1 nautical mile due west, shrouded with shoals, and Ministerial Island 1/6th of a mile further north and also surrounded by shoals. This allowed for a pretty small margin of error given the conditions. A few degrees too far north or south and we’d be left wondering where we were in pitch blackness with no navigational aids and no visual clues. So how cool was that?!

We all knew 5 Star Training involved night navigation exercises…but I did not expect this. It was literally pitch black with no usable light. Even my headlamp proved less than useful since the light reflecting off my all-white boat and the moist fog robbed me of my night vision. The compass was too far away to read and the spring tides were drifting us to sea. Fortunately one of us had a functional set up, an additional strap-on compass mounted close enough to see and illuminated with a glow stick. I’m still convinced that you can either read a compass or try to keep your night vision but not both from the cockpit of a kayak in conditions such as these.

With one of our group now able to maintain our heading, the rest of us concentrated on listening to the ocean: to the surf and shoal shapes, anything that might help fix our position. We frequently counted off, confirming that no one had gone missing. Suddenly out of the darkness a team member starts to holler. He’s been picked up by an unseen breaking wave and is headed for me, in the dark, unable to stop. A quick back stroke kept me from being swept up as well. Just as suddenly the wave disappeared. No harm, no foul.

The wave that grabbed my mate was from the shoal at the north end of Bates Island. We had hit our destination dead on and the quieter water beyond gave us a chance to relax. As our night gear began to work for us, we plotted a now simple buoy to buoy course back to our team member on Jewell. At this point we were feeling our oats. As a group we’d survived a significant test of our skills, and more importantly had learned to trust our basic nav skills.

It was late but we were a rowdy bunch that night, full of the kind of spirit that only facing ones fears can instill. Another day was done. Maybe 5 Star survival was possible. We slept well that night.

Sunday 6:00 am:

We awoke early, prepared warm breakfasts, and paddled out around Jewell’s north end to play in the swells. Conditions had matured overnight with bigger walls of water coming in further apart and with greater speed.  Now it was time to paddle back and forth through the surf line, hook up quickly and tow a “victim” safely out through surf and swells, and generally “read” the sea. We landed on a small steeply shelved beach for a quick morning stretch.

Paddling on past Inner Green, we took a moment to practice surf rescues. It was a hoot doing a re-enter and roll some miles from shore, with waves breaking over my half submerged boat. The waves were much better at filling my boat than my pump was at emptying the boat, but I soon found a way rig the skirt so I could alternate pumping and bracing.

Out on the ledges, the swells were huge but friendly. Spirits were high as we were asked to look for a landing zone on Outer Green. We knew the seas at the buoy were 8′ every 14 seconds. Here the swells were refracting all the way around the island, sometimes exploding in the lee. It was a magnificent sight yet clearly no place to land, but we kept looking. 5 Star includes emergency landings in no-landing zones. Well, this certainly qualified as a no-landing zone.

We held our position, studying the way the waves broke and surged over the rocks, looking for the pattern, the set signature that would tell us when the surges would come and when the lulls would occur and a safe landing might be made. Tom started paddling in and broke into a sprint just as a wave surged. It lifted him up five or six feet, gently placing boat and paddler onto a ledge, high on the rocks. I was in awe. This is the kind of super-human stuff I was envisioning. Now it’s my turn. I headed for the less glamorous and seemingly safer lower ledges for my landing, as did most of my teammates. We looked around and laughed nervously about our unlikely landing, but we all landed safely with only one swimmer. Spirits were high. We were on the final leg of our training. The fog was thick with drizzle as the seas were building with the falling tide. We huddled up against a black rock wall in these British-like conditions, discussing big wave tactics. Before us the sea was transforming our launch site into a major concern. We loaded quickly and worked out our launch plan.

The waves were surging impressively now right in front of our launch. We had to carefully time each launch in the lull between the bending surf. I pushed off the rocks, a blast of adrenaline, looking around to see where everyone was I counted five paddlers on the water, four still to launch. As Ned launched his boat a very large surge built, grabbed his boat, spun it sideways and then threw paddler and kayak hard against the island. Ned tried to roll in the deep, raging soup, rocks all around him, as the second half of the wave surged strongly over the scene – but the bow is pinned between the rocks and the Explorer folded just fore of the hatch. The seas had torn Ned’s boat apart. Unable to control his boat, Ned bailed and swam to safety as the land hands reached to haul him out of the surge. The sea kept throwing his heavily laden boat further onto the rocks with each wave.

With Ned safe, the land-side crew moved to rescue the boat. As they hauled the wreckage from the sea, the bow dangled off at 45 degrees, the day hatch had a fist-sized hole, and the rear deck was about as rigid as wet newspaper. The sight of the damaged boat sickened us. What would we do now? Was this going to require an evacuation? Certainly that boat can’t be paddled home!? But since this was 5 Star training, an evacuation would be far too vulgar. We would need to search for a more elegant solution and return under our own power.

Clearly it was too dangerous for the on-water members to attempt to land. We needed to sit tight, stay warm and out of trouble, while the guys ashore attempt to salvage Ned’s boat. If they couldn’t fix the boat then perhaps we could transport Ned and his boat on a towed raft.

After about twenty minutes, the boat was repaired. Well, maybe repaired is too strong of a word. No one would confuse this with a proper repair job. This was a true field repair designed to do little more than keep Ned afloat on the 5-mile leg back to Peaks Island. Two spare paddles served as splints for the bow while copious amounts of tape and straps held everything together. Patches were applied to the 2 rear holes. Ned’s gear was stowed in other boats and the once watertight compartments were filled to capacity with floatation bags. It wasn’t pretty, but it would float.

The plan was set. The four on shore would throw the boat off the cliff as a surge rose. I would hook on and tow the boat out of the surge zone. Ned would then jump off the rocks and swim to Steve who would tow him through the surf to his kayak. Ned would re-enter his boat and we would head home. Simple enough, should work.Kayakers landing in surf on rocks

As I waited for the boat to be thrown off the cliff, I couldn’t help thinking that I was awfully close to the same position Ned was in before that wave destroyed his boat. Before I could consider the danger I saw Ned’s kayak in the air…I started paddling like crazy to catch it. If the waves got hold of it again there would be nothing left to fix. A quick hook up, sprint tow and the swamped boat was safe beyond the surge. Steve arrived moments later with Ned on his rear deck. Ned quickly climbed back in his boat, and started to pump out his cockpit with hopes that it would still float.

The paddle back to Peaks was truly surreal. Ned was quiet, stoic and solid: his Explorer broken almost beyond repair – but somehow it still floated, and he paddled the 5 miles back unassisted. I felt sorry for Ned over the destruction of his boat, and yet I was amazed that the Explorer was so tough that it could suffer that kind of punishment and still be paddled home. Peaks Island slowly appeared out of the low clouds. After one last surf line, we quietly left the sea behind and re-entered the harbor – tired, spent, and emotionally drained from our short expedition.

Back on land at Peaks Island, I went to the store to pick up essentials containing salt, sugar, and beer. By the time I got back, everyone was gathered around the picnic table chatting up the weekend and the lessons learned. I sensed the kind of esprit du corps that only comes from truly unique and intense experiences. I had once again been humbled by the sea.

I am not a 5 Star paddler, I suspect that I will work for some time and take the training again before I dare assess for the 5 Star award. At any rate, the award itself is no longer the goal. Steve Maynard said, “It is a milestone, but the award is just a piece of paper. The skill set is what matters.” Agreed, but the 5 Star Award does have meaning to me: not as a badge to be displayed, but as a goal to be realized. The whole BCU Star system is not there to differentiate paddlers, but to encourage people to gain more experience while improving their paddling skills and safety level.

Gone are my misconceptions of British Gods walking on water during raging storms as their mates brewed tea promptly at 4:00. The weekend started innocently enough, but for me, paddling would never be the same. I had been introduced to so many new dimensions that I can’t even recall how I had looked at sea kayaking a short 3 days before. And yet I know someday, after more time at sea, that the prior simplicity will return. On that day I will have reached my goal.

I owe a debt of gratitude to my fearless teammates: Thomas, Chris, Chuck, Jeff, Bill, the now infamous Ned, and the MIKCo team of Steve Maynard and Tom Bergh. You have all taught me a lot this weekend, lessons I will not soon forget. Above the MIKCo boathouse is a sign that reads: “A smooth sea never makes a skillful mariner.” I understand this quote a little bit better with each humbling.

I wish you all fair winds and fair tides.

Jed L is a BCU Coach 3 aspirant, ACA Open Water – Coastal Kayak Instructor, teaches for Team North Atlantic, and is active with North Shore Paddlers Network a Boston based seakayak club.

Posted in Adventure, Paddling Technique.