Roof Rack Ruckus [60]

By Trevor Costa

The guy at the roof rack shop looks me straight in the eye and says “you’d have to be an idiot not to tie a long load front and back.” Well… I thought about this for a second and I figured that maybe he was wrong. Sure, I have done some dumb stuff in my time, but on this matter, I didn’t consider myself so much as an idiot, more perhaps I had suffered from a lapse in judgment.

The roof rack technician was commenting on the fact we had nearly lost both our sea kayaks off the roof of our car. I had returned to the shop that had sold me the roof racks to try and recuperate some money to pay for the damage done by the racks failure. Needless to say I wasn’t totally successful. But I was also after some answers as to how such a thing could happen in the first place and the explanation wasn’t sitting well with me.

But lets rewind for a second…the whole sorry affair of the roof rack incident occurred while we were returning home from a weekend of paddling at the coast with our two kayaks on the roof of the sedan. On clearing the hills of the Great Divide we got hit by fierce cross-winds. There was an all mighty bang, followed by a less than elegant screech to a halt as the kayaks started to disappear from view over the back of the car.

We were lucky. We were able to pull over in time to stop the kayaks from doing a full back flip. My partner was out of the car before we had even stopped moving and hung onto one of the bucking kayaks like a real rodeo pro, holding the whole structure down while I freed the kayaks from the racks. Such was the force of the wind that once freed the kayaks became 5 metre sails and with us in tow, both of us nearly did a beautiful spinnaker run straight back out onto the highway. But with an effort worthy of an America’s Cup contender, we were eventually able to wrestle the bucking sails, I mean, kayaks to the ground. Talking serious wind here.

As I stood by the side of the road surveying the damage I realised with a shudder what could have happened if the kayaks had gone over and hit the busy highway. It became crystal clear at that moment that when dealing with cross winds and a long load such as sea kayaks (even plastic ones) there was no avenue for complacency. The guy at the shop had been half right. They should have been tied front and back to counter such forces.

So how was such a bad judgment call made in the first place? Well….over the 18 months or so that we had been hauling our kayaks around the countryside I had studied in detail the roof rack set up. The racks were attached to the car’s roof by L shaped metal fixtures that hooked under the sill of the four car doors, adjusted by Allen screws. These fixtures were supported by rubber mounts on the roof. The cross bars were attached to the fixtures by adjustable metal plates, again with Allen screw adjustment. The roof racks stated maximum carrying capacity was well beyond the weight of the two kayak load. The sea kayaks were in cradles and tied securely with strong webbing straps immediately fore and aft of each cockpit. To me all seemed very robust and that there was no way these kayaks were going anywhere, especially not off these racks. In retrospect the biggest factor that may have lead to the poor judgment was that in having plastic kayaks I thought they would not need tying front and back as they weren’t going to crack under the strain of any sideways force as a wooden or fibreglass kayak might. The theory was that they would stay happy and unscathed in their roof top cradles.

But there were forces at work here I had yet to fully comprehend. What I hadn’t factored in was the fact that the racks themselves may fail and detach from the car and as a result potentially take kayaks, cradles and the works with them. There was no warning of this in the information supplied with the roof racks, no indication that precautions should be taken for the-rack-leaves-car-with-kayaks scenario. Nothing like this had happened before to us or even looked like happening.

On inspection of the racks it could be seen that the two under-sill attachments on the up wind side had bent right out of their fixtures. With this, enough force was applied to the front cross bar fixture by the strong wind to allow the Allen screw mounted plate to slip. The cross bar had slid along with the attached under-sill fixture across the car’s roof leaving a deep gouge well into the metal.

We were able to patch the racks up with some fencing wire and well placed threats long enough to get the kayaks back to the nearest town and the local police station where I was prepared to make a full confession as to my discrepancy and throw myself on the mercy of the court. To my surprise the constabulary didn’t throw me in jail but kindly offered to store the kayaks in their enclosure to pick up later on a less windy day. They said, “this type of things happens all the time around these parts”, which was further reinforced by the sorry collection of shattered catamarans and bent canoes already in the enclosure.

I posted this incident on the Club’s chatline and received many responses outlining similar hard earned lessons. And apart from the obvious – always tie your kayak front and back remarks – another recurring theme was that Allen screw fixtures on roof racks can and do fail. So if you have these fixtures, you may want to consider replacing them with proper nuts and bolts. I had one guy contact me who was not as lucky as us, he had lost the rack and the attached brand new kayak he had just picked up, over the back of his car into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Result was he was up for some hefty bills to replace a trashed kayak and a smashed car.

So for this not so young player, the lesson was well learnt. Never hit the highway without stout lines attached at each end of the kayak to counter any sideways forces and I suspect any forces generated from a sudden stop. Without such precautions the kayaks may stay firmly in their cradles but there is no guarantee the racks will stay attached to your car.