Running the Gauntlet [27]

By Dirk Stuber

Dear New Member,
Welcome to the Club and to the wonderful world of sea kayaking. If you’ve been on a club trip recently you may have seen or heard of members running be gauntlet. Now I know from past experience some consider the running a controversial thing. For example, last year at the Board of Canoe Education instructor assessment weekend gauntleting was discussed. It was agreed that paddling in gauntlets is too dangerous for beginners and should not be part of any training course. As a new member you may have wondered about the activity and it may be useful for you to think about it.

So please sit back and let me by to explain. To run the gauntlet means to paddle through or play in the white water channels and passage ways found around the rocks of most headlands. Why is it controversial? Because it is risky and depending on the sea and the characteristics of the gauntlet, often just plain dangerous. Everyone I know who is a regular runner has at some time damaged their kayak. The damage has ranged from a few scratches, huge holes and in the worst case a kayak ripped in half. You may be thinking why would any one paddle in a gauntlet. That’s easy to answer, it is exciting and challenging. I compare it to white water paddling, i e. you can paddle in little, gentle rapids or you can paddle in big, ugly, ferocious rapids. Gauntlets are no different. Depending on be conditions, location and your mood you can select gauntlets to suit.

Now I must point out that this is not a how-to or a come-and-try article. No, it is a warning. It Is best if you stay away from the ugly gauntlet. To many times l’ve seen or heard of members, in beautiful, shiny, new and expensive sea kayaks enter the gauntlet unaware of impending disaster. Have you ever heard the sound that fibreglass makes when smashed onto rocks? How about thud, scrape, rip, tear and crumble. Have you ever seen a face streaked with panic, fear, disappointment and anger when he sees the damage wrought by the nasty gauntlet. Have you ever felt the anguish, shame and guilt when someone suggests that it’s your fault that they entered the gauntlet. Have you had to bear the taunts and ridicule of the deep water paddlers as they chastise you for your folly and accuse you of putting them in danger during a rescue attempt. Lastly, have you heard the slur that cuts the deepest, that you may have brought the sport of sea kayaking into disrepute. My friends beware, some people think that those who run the gauntlet are mad bastards.

Hopefully I’ve turned you off gauntlets forever. However I know the day will come when you may be tempted. I now you are strong and upright and you will try to resist however as Fred Nile will tell you temptation is wickedly insidious. So close your eyes and let us enjoy a fantasy paddle. Just imagine you are paddling along and in the distance you see waves breaking against the headland. As you get closer gauntlets will start to appear and you will wonder: “should I give this a go”? Ahead of you someone is positioning himself to enter. This is a dangerous time, don’t follow him blindly. Look out to sea, watch the swell, find out what happens to the gauntlet when the big seas hit. Are there waves breaking over the gauntlet that could push you against the rocks? Or, as the wave retreats, is be gauntlet sucked dry, are there any rock shelves that could cause you to capsize? Watch carefully, always wait for at least one big set to pass through the gauntlet,

O.K, you have decided to enter the gauntlet, your heart is pounding and the adrenalin is pumping, you pick the line and time and paddle hard. Once you’re in the gauntlet prepare yourself be tossed about, some serious bracing may be required.

Now for the exit, this is also a dangerous time, to many of us have blindly followed someone only to find he has lust made it over the big set and those behind have been hammered. So again it is all about timing. If you have shelter in the gauntlet wait for the right time, ideally when there are no breaking waves or big sets approaching. When the time is right accelerate and get back to deep water. The gauntlets that offer little protection during the big sets are usually those with low rocks on the seaward side. The low rocks do not act as a barrier to the bigger waves. A good technique with these gauntlets is to sprint through these between big sets.

Lastly we need to fantasise about what can go wrong. You’ve made it into a the gauntlet and you are being pushed around by the white water, your brace fails and you capsize. Ideally try to roll up or if you miss try again. At the risk of sounding blase, when you’re upside down make sure you don’t hit you’re head on a rock. A decent whack will knock you unconscious. A helmet would be very useful in this situation (do you put the helmet on after you capsize? – Ed) . If you miss your roll and wet exit Rule number one is don’t panic, Due to my lack of skills I’ve wet exited a few times and have found in deep gauntlets it is easy to duck under the waves. even when wearing a PFD.

Depending on the situation, if you have excellent technique and composure, you can attempt a reenter and roll. Or you can swim your kayak out of the gauntlet pushed along by the strongest current. When you to the end of the gauntlet watch out for any oncoming waves. You can also let the kayak go and clamber up the rocks. When you’re safe and have recovered your breath you can retrieve your kayak. Unfortunately at this stage it will be usually be scratched or have a hole or two. It is important if you are a spectator you should not feel obliged to assist with a rescue. It does not help anyone if you get into difficulty trying to assist someone else.

Lastly there is one situation that I think is particularly dangerous. It is when you are caught by a breaking wave and being pushed sideways onto a rock shelf. If it was a beach, you’d brace into the wave and ride it to the sand, usually no dramas. On a rock shelf it is different. As the kayak starts to hit the rocks and grab you may be rolled over by the force of the wave. If you are still locked into the cockpit you have a real chance of sustaining facial, skull or spinal injuries. So what should you do? My natural inclination is to wet exit before the boat is grabbed by the rocks however there are many kayakers more skilled than I am who may have a different opinion. Some would say the obvious answer is don’t get into the situation so you won’t have to make the decision.

That brings our fantasy to an end. You’ve patiently listened to the tale and many thoughts must be going through your mind. Ranging from ‘mmmmm that was interesting’ through to ‘yes they are mad bastards’. At least now when you go on a club trip and you see people paddling in gauntlets you’ll know what is going on and you’ll have some ideas about the potential dangers.

(new members should be aware that fantasising about gauntlets is a well known side effect of competition paddling and steroid abuse – Ed)