Surfski Paddler Mid Ocean Rescue

 In Safety

On Sunday 27 April 2014 Brian Henning got into trouble when his boat leash unclipped and he was left treading water 3 km of Virginia beach. His paddling partner, Alastair Caddick came to his rescue. This is Brian’s and Alastair’s story.

At around 10 am a group left DUC on a downwind headed for Umhlanga. Conditions were windy with a 20-25 knot SW wind blowing that was often gusting well over 30 knots. Brian and Alastair had all the correct safety equipment. Both paddlers had stable well proven surfski’s, the Fenn XT. Brian had a leash to his boat and Alastair had a paddle leash attached to the boat. Both paddlers had cell phones in water proof pouches. Both were wearing life jackets that contained drinking water. They were paddling a route they new well and had briefed their shore crew as to what time to expect them at Umhlanga. Their shore crew were also experienced having filled this role many times before. Brian and Alastair went the extra step of making an agreement to stay together for the duration of the paddle. Brian has only been paddling for 6 months but has done a significant amount of paddling in this time and is considered a competent paddler. He is also an experienced fishing ski paddler, diver and sailor and had been in similar conditions before. Alastair has been paddling for 5 years and completed multiple downwinds.

About 35-40 min into the paddle Brian fell of his ski. He had fallen of once already but had remounted quickly and continued. But the second time his leash carabiner unclipped itself and the wind and waves washed his boat away instantly. The wind speed had increased dramatically with a resultant worsening of the sea state. Brian shouted to Alastair as soon he realised his ski had broken free. Alastair was just ahead at this time and was able to chase down Brian’s ski. Alastair reports that the ski was literally tumbling across the sea surface and he had to paddle hard to catch the boat. Once he had caught it, he put the leash between his teeth and started to tow the boat back to Brian. Sensibly, Brian had kept his paddle and was using it mark his position by waving it vertically above his head. This allowed Alastair to see him easily. After 30 min of effort Alastair realised he was making no progress and was eventually forced to abandon Brian’s boat. This was not a decision made lightly. Alastair is a fit, strong paddler and had been towing the boat for over 30 min. There came a time when he felt it was more important he get back to Brian than to save the boat.

After ditching the ski, the 2 came together quite quickly. Brian passed his paddle to Alastair and then wrapped his arms and legs around the nose of Alastair’s ski. The wind and seas were violent enough that Brian was ripped from the nose of the ski several times. Brian reports that he spent quite a bit of time treading water next to Alastair’s ski as that was easier than trying to hold on. Brian, being more stable in the water than Alastair who was trying to balance the ski, got out his phone and tried to make a call. The touch screen phone proved almost impossible to use in the conditions. Brian did manage to get a call out to his shore crew, but the shore crew’s phone had been locked in the car. Alastair received a whatsapp msg from a communal paddling group and decided to take advantage and got Brian to reply. The touch key board was impossible to use and they could only send a garbled text. The group received the msg but no one realised it was a SOS call. The 2 kept trying to make calls and send messages to whomever they could get the phones menu system to access. At some stage the phone was accidentally put into aeroplane mode which mean’t they never received the return call from their shore crew. Brian reports that the pressure of the water on the touch screens was activating the screens, making the phones very difficult to use. Alastair was also forced to ditch Brian’s paddles as handling 2 paddles in such strong winds was proving treacherous.

All this time the shore crew were waiting at Durban View, the finish point. They Umhlanga life guards were on patrol and the shore crew asked them to hang about to make sure the paddlers landed safely. When Brian and Alastair were 20min past their ETA, the life guards dispatched a jetski to search for them, unsuccessfully.

There were three yachts out sailing and one passed quite close by the 2 paddlers. The 2 were unable to get the boats attention and it sailed on. When a second yacht sailed close, Alastair remembered the whistle in his life jacket and it was the whistle that finally got the yachts attention. The Yacht Zapp, skippererd by Graham Rose yacht responded but could not get close due to the conditions. They radioed the Yachts race committee who were on a ski boat called Scorpio, skippered by William Lesar and crewed by Dominique Kemp and Marc Etherington. The ski boat arrived on the scene quickly and both paddlers were pulled from the water. The ski was loaded onto the boat. They immediately called their shore crew to update them.

Alastair was not feeling well. He had early signs of hypothermia. Sitting in the ski, he had been exposed to the wind, while Brian had faired much better being submerged in the warm water. Alastair was nauseous and was sick several times while on the rescue boat, most likely due to a combination of sea sickness, fatigue and hypothermia. The rescue boat had an anemometer on board and was recording gusts of 45 knots. The rescue boat returned the 2 paddlers to the calm waters of DUC. Both paddlers had recovered by that time and were no worse for wear for their ordeal. The whole event had lasted around 4 hrs.

Brian’s boat washed up at Umdloti some time later. Those that found it were extremely concerned that there may be a paddler lost at sea. They called a paddling friend of theirs to tap into the paddling network and find out whose boat it was. The boat had no numbers on it so could not be identified. But it did have a Point Yacht Club sticker. The NSRI were notified who then went to PYC beach site. Fortunately Alastair was still at the club and able to solve the mystery and claim the boat.

A huge thanks from the paddling community at large, and the 2 paddlers themselves, to the yachtsmen, ski boat crew and the people who found the washed up ski. The 2 paddlers have been a little overwhelmed and have not had a chance to thank everyone involved properly.

In the author’s opinion, these 2 paddlers did almost everything right. They had the correct safety equipment with them. They kept their heads and made sensible decisions under extreme conditions. I firmly believe, after interviewing Alastair and Brian, that it was their presence of mind and mutual co-operation that resulted in a successful rescue.


I believe the following lessons are to be learnt from this experience.


  • The most important piece of safety equipment lies between our ears. Reasonable well thought out decisions are vital in extreme conditions
  • Know your limits and don’t head out in conditions that are beyond what you know you can handle.Adopt the buddy system. Even the best of us get into trouble. It’s easy to stay together in a downwind. Either choose a buddy of a similar speed and agree on a line. Or the faster paddler must stay behind and shadow the slower paddler.
  • Have all your safety equipment ready, in good working order and know how to use it. I don’t believe our typical surfski leashes are strong enough for the job or customised sufficiently to suit the demands of surfski paddling. The current leashes are essentially just modified body board leashes.
  • Touch screen phones are difficult to operate in wet conditions. I can personally vouch for this as I use my touch screen phone regularly in training our squad. Just a small amount of water on the screen of the pouch renders the touch screen close to useless. A dedicated simple key pad phone, preprogrammed with ground crew and rescue organisations numbers on speed dial, is a better option. You must be able to operate and speak on the phone from within its water proof pouch. Get it and test it, while treading water on a choppy day.
  • Sending a pre-scripted sms is a good idea as it can be difficult to speak on the phone and Brian discovered when he was able to get a call out.
  • If you have smart phone as well, use a service such as Edmondo or Kite Tracker that can let others track your position live. Make sure someone at home is using the service and tracking you. If you stay still for an extended period, they can trigger the alarm.
  • A whistle proved to be the most important piece of kit they had. Its also tiny and easy to fit into a pocket.
  • Ground crew must be briefed and have a paddlers ETA. Many of us just drop cars at the finish. Ground crews are better but at the very least make an arrangement to call someone with in minutes of landing. That way they can alert the rescue squad should that call not come.
  • The rescuers reported that the bright red colour of Alastair’s boat and the bright colour of Brian’s rash vest made spotting them easy. White coloured ski’s are close to impossible to see on a white capped ocean.


Brian Henning would like to invite comments and discussion. He can be contacted on 0825416575.


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Showing 3 comments
  • Rob Mousley

    I have a cheap and cheerful mobile in a waterproof pouch for my safety phone. Cost R250 and it has a duplicate SIM in it. We’ve tested it (with NSRI), it works.

    A 3-flare pencil flare kit works really well too – I’ve used them in anger in daylight and they are effective. Small, easy to use, easy to carry in your PFD pocket.

    Paddle leashes are great – you can let the paddle go and don’t lose it! I’ve used both body and paddle leash for years, they DON’T get tangled up if you keep your head.

    Note that if you have a Garmin with you, it is possible to get GPS coords off it. Not easy in hectic conditions, but if you’ve practised it, you can do it.

    Well done to the guys, and thanks to the folks who helped them out!

    • Robin

      Thanks Rob. Like the boy scouts say, be prepared. That means having the correct kit and knowing how to use it in tough conditions. No matter how skilled or proficient one is, sh*t happens.

  • David Carlson

    Here in the U.S., when paddling in the ocean, a VHF radio is required safety equipment. Handheld, waterproof VHF radios cost from $100-$300 and are much easier to use than cell phones… Cell phones are not acceptable substitutes.

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Large surfski at a surfski race