Mayday, is a term that will be familiar to most as a standard way of declaring an emergency on the water, or air. It comes from the French term venez m’aider meaning ‘come help me.’
In the case of a seemingly benign paddling day a couple of years ago it was our own May Day. Hard to believe that upon launching at Southey Point on Salt Spring Island in gleaming warm sunshine on a Sunday morning that within an hour or so the day would be not so much May as perhaps November or December.
My mission, to take a friend’s girlfriend out kayaking prior to a week-long paddling trip. She was indeed a novice then and needed a tune up and it was believed that I would be more patient than my buddy. Good call. I refused to teach my wife to drive for that same reasoning. And so we set off, her in a borrowed kayak and me in mine. She had been given a Werner carbon fibre paddle that was as slight as a feather, and I with my heavy wooden paddle. After a time we swapped and she could not believe that I would use it. We traded back as we rounded the jetty of crushed shells and giants’ game of driftwood pick up sticks on the then named Kuper Island, (it is now been renamed Penelakut Island belonging to the Penelakut First Nations). The sun burned down on us as we rode the high tide flow through the sandy cut in between Penelakut and Thetis Island into a bay housing a pub. We didn’t stop there but opted instead to land across the bay on a pebble beach for lunch.
My subtle teachings of the ways of the paddle had been sinking in and she had transformed in an hour from a ‘lily-dipper’ barely making any forward motion to an efficient paddler keeping up with my boat stroke for stroke. The lovely May day was then rapidly lost to an incoming dirty cloud filled to the brim with rain. It advanced up the shore of Vancouver Island towards Ladysmith and for a time we assumed we would be missed by Mother Nature. Something happened, we must have attracted attention and the storm cloud drew over our heads dropping bombs of rain and accompanied by gusting chilly winds. The channel erupted into small waves that grew larger, some breaking against the direction of the winds. We got going quickly and my partner was forced into learning the kayaking skills needed to turn her boat into the wind, and in a hurry. It was an awkward maneuver and I had to come to the rescue to manually lower her rudder clinging to the cord holding it down. We spun in the wind an waves for a few wet rotations before with some coaxing managed to get us both pointed in the right direction.
I had not bothered with my Goretex paddle jacket, but thankfully she was better dressed. The winds did die but the rain did not as we inched our wat towards Tent Island and the last crossing back home. I was soaked but kept going and watched over my student. I could see her body language changing to ‘I love kayaking’ into ‘Kayaking is too hard!’. The wind then died as the squall moved northward and only a few drops of rain lingered as the skies again cleared and with it a renewed energy. The water was still tossed and the tide too low to squeeze through in between Penelakut and Tent so we had to continue around. The reward for this extra paddling effort was the Cormorant nests in the cliffy section of the small island, and upon turning towards home a lovely smooth channel sheltered from the remnants of the storm.
Our crossing back to Salt Spring took longer than usual as we were both stopping to snack and talk about the mini-adventure. Her paddling trip in the following week was to Johnstone Strait and into the Broughton Archipelago notoriously windy and cold waters. Without planning it I had given her not only the paddling skills lesson but as well a grounding in what it takes to head-butt a windstorm and deal with advancing wind waves. I had earned my beer, which was my pay for the May day outing.
Moral of the story, always bring extra dry clothing, wear the dang paddling jacket (just in case) and remember to release the rudder clip before leaping into conditions that require the assistance of a rudder, and if there is a pub near-by…stop! Waiting out a storm on an exposed beach or inside a pub with a pint? hmmmm.