Sunday, March 13, 2016

Use tie-downs on every kayak trip -- or risk disaster

At the scene -- and time definitely did not stand still 

You know you’re in for a hair-raising kayak story when it begins...

"Miraculously, no one was killed or injured." 

This is one of those stories. Not to sound melodramatic, but it’s a paddler’s tale with lessons that could save lives. And off the water, at that.    

It happened last Nov. 27, Black Friday. While most folks were already stampeding into the shopping malls or sleeping off their turkey dinners, I headed toward Tomales Bay with paddling pal Trudy on I-80.   

Large cracks ran across the deck...
It was a crisp, sunny morn just after 8 a.m. as we sped by West Sacramento in light traffic. On almost any other day, four lanes of freeway would have been jammed. I was driving my shiny new Subaru Outback, carrying our two sea kayaks on a new, after-market rooftop rack, purchased just to haul two longer boats with ease. How could life get any better?

All of that changed in a split second and taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. There was a slight bump, and I looked up through the windshield to see the bows of our kayaks disappear. Then, through the rear window, I saw both kayaks – still attached to the rack – somersault through the air and land upside down in the freeway behind us. Still attached to the rack, and still strapped together, at least for the moment. 

You’ve read terrifying stories with phrases like, “It seemed as if time stood still.” Well, no it didn’t. Everything was a blur, not unlike the traffic going by at 65 mph or faster. Do the math and realize that 65 mph works out to just over 95 feet per second, roughly the blink of an eye. 
...and halfway around the hull, like a cracked egg

We screeched to a halt out of traffic in the center median strip, perhaps 75 yards down the road. Trudy punched 911 on her cell. I jumped out and began running back toward the boats, waving my arms wildly, hoping to warn other motorists, bracing for the awful sound of impact between bumper, boats and rack. Then a strange thing happened.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a Jeep pull to a stop. In the middle of the freeway. Without hazard lights flashing. A young woman jumped out and began sprinting back toward the boats. I heard myself screaming, “Don’t do it! Get out of here! It’s not worth your life!” I knew that if a car plowed into that yak rack just ahead, she would be killed almost instantly and right in front of my eyes.

She never broke stride. We reached the boats at about the same time and dragged the rig over to the center median strip, out of traffic. Before I could say a word, she turned and ran back down the freeway, jumped into her vehicle and sped away. I never got to thank her. I never got to grab her by the shoulders and say, “What were you thinking?”

By this point, you'd likely believe that I’d used up my lifetime quota of good luck. Not quite. Perhaps a couple hundred yards away, on the eastbound side of 80, a CHP cruiser had pulled someone over. A few minutes later, the patrolman circled back and parked behind us, keeping traffic out of the fast lane. A cool dude too – no yelling, just a droll “What do you want to do?”
Bow and stern eyelets show impact  
Good question. As it turned out, the best answer was a $200-an-hour flatbed road service truck, and two beefy guys who could hoist the boats and rack on the bed without trying to disassemble the mess within a few feet of traffic.

An hour later, in my driveway, more good luck.

Trudy’s 16-foot fiberglass kayak had escaped major damage. My boat, a thermoformed plastic Eddyline, was strapped to J racks and took the brunt of the impact. (Note for future ref: AAA towing doesn’t cover kayaks that fly off cars, and neither do most homeowner insurance policies, less deductible.) I had nicknamed my boat “Great White”. But it now looked more like a badly cracked egg.

Time for a major mea culpa and the First Important Lesson from this mishap: I was so confident in my new rack setup that I failed to use tie-down lines to secure the boat bows and sterns. Wrong, wrong, wrong. If the boat is on top of the car, using front and rear tie-downs should be considered just as essential as the straps that hold the boat to the crossbars. Always. I had routinely used tie-downs on a previous vehicle but became complacent over time.
As rack slid on pavement,  friction melted strap 

Had someone been following us only a few car lengths back, the airborne yak rack could have crashed through their windshield. Remember, 95 feet-plus per second. So later on, when friends expressed sympathy at the loss of my boat, I explained why I was so happy to trade it for the guilt that I could have carried for the rest of my life. Even the lawsuits wouldn’t have been worse than that.

It also should be noted that, without tie-downs, rack manufacturer warranties are void, as is any rack dealer liability. It’s right there in the paperwork. But there is another, less obvious lesson in my good-luck story.

Does your rack installation meet dealer specs?

I was using a well-known, after-market rack, but it did not conform to the rack manufacturer’s specs for my vehicle, although the authorized rack dealer suggested it. Indeed, it might have worked fine with tie-downs in place. But after the mishap, I discovered that the brackets holding my rack to the roof barely made metal-on-metal contact. Not reassuring at all, but at the end of the day, the responsibility was mine. 

So here’s the Second Important Lesson: If your dealer suggests a non-standard setup that is not approved by the manufacturer (their Web sites have detailed fit guides), then require the dealer to provide his own personal, written warranty on the installation – yes, even with tie-downs. 

And the Third Important Lesson: When’s the last time you checked to see that your roof rack was tightly secured? How about wear and tear on saddles, straps and tie-down lines? With another kayaking season upon us, it’s a good time to inspect not only your kayak, but the gear that you use to carry it. 


Thanks, Stan. Wish I could buy you a "Grand Slam" 
Since that day, several friends have speculated on the incredible coincidences that averted tragedy. Spirituality often comes up. Since my pal Trudy was right there, consider her take on this.  

Just before the boats took flight, she noticed we were passing a Denny’s in West Sacramento where she often took her father, Stan, for breakfast. It was his favorite place. Stan passed away a few months back, but is still very much in her thoughts. He was a longtime truck driver, a biker, and a guy who had that Paul Newman kind of cool even after age 90. Trudy believes he was still around Denny’s on that fateful Friday and was looking out for us. Sounds good to me. Plus, I’m just thankful that my hands finally stopped shaking after a couple of days.

"Great White" reborn?
Then there’s the fate of my “Great White” kayak. I stripped off most of the useful parts that could be used by paddling pals. A neighbor who’d heard my story dropped by with his 18-year-old son to see the badly cracked craft.

The teen looked as if he’d found a free Chevy Camaro in my backyard. It’s now in his backyard, and to his credit, the kid has been hard at work on repairs. I gave it to him and his dad with the understanding that it’s not seaworthy, probably not even pond-worthy, and I take no responsibility for what they do with it. Whether it's been good fortune or a helping hand from beyond, I’m not going to push my luck.
© Glenn Brank 2016