Off and on, when conditions permit (which is probably a bit of a cop-out), I have been trying to get a reliable eskimo roll down in my sea kayak. At this point, I am very quasi-reliable, getting about one out of every five under ideal conditions of warm, calm water in an empty boat and wearing a face mask (prevents the inevitable water up the nose). I often wonder if, even were I more reliable, would I be able to roll a loaded boat. I don't know, and, until I get rolling an unloaded boat solid, I am not taking a chance to find out.
I've never actually unintentionally capsized in my kayak (or I hadn't until recently). On long trips with a loaded boat where there is just Doug and I, caution dictates some prudence when paddling on the open ocean. We can be a long way from shore, and a long way from rescue, so pushing our paddling to the limit where a capsize becomes a real possibility seems foolhardy.
Ironically, I had my first unintentional capsize just the day after we were talking about such events with our new friends from Cairns. Out of the four of us, including our two new friends who are very experienced kayakers, only one (MF) had unintentionally capsized and that was a minor incident coming into a breaking bar with one of their children in the front of their double kayak.
The day after, five of us paddled from Yorkeys Knob on the north side of Cairns up to Ellis Beach via Double and Haycock Islands. From Yorkeys Knob, it is about 9 km north and around the east side of Haycock Island to a very small landing site sheltered between two small rock reefs on the western side of Haycock Island. The wind was gradually increasing until it was blowing a fairly typical 17 to 18 knots gusting up to 22 knots. Accordingly, there was the usual short, steep wind chop blowing with some reasonably well developed waves.
We landed at Haycock Island and had a short leg stretch, and then, one by one, launched out of the little cove back into the now reasonably well developed seas. I was last to launch and was waiting in the little harbour with my spray deck on and all ready to paddle out into the exposed water as soon as Doug paddled out of the little harbour we had landed in.
My attention was not well focused on the sea state around me as I was more concerned with not getting close to Doug as I had almost collided my kayak with his as we rounded Haycock Island when he unpredictably stopped in front of me and began back-paddling. I, expecting him to continue forward, was still forward paddling, and surfing down a wave which brought our boats dangerously close together. Consequently, instead of watching the waves which were sneaking around the reef of the little harbour, I was actually watching Doug who was fiddling with his spray deck. I was also feeling quite comfortable in my kayak, as despite the somewhat pushy conditions, I had not had any trouble with boat management on the 9 kilometre paddle to Haycock Island.
In any case, as I was sitting there in a daze (also watching a nearby turtle) a large wave snuck around our little sheltering reef and I was too slow to get my boat pointed bow into it and failed to lean far enough when it broke right on my kayak, and, within a second, I was upside down. For a moment, I did actually consider trying to roll (and should have as nothing would have been lost), but, I thought my chances of success were fairly marginal, and a wet exit and re-entry would be quicker.
By the time I was out of my boat and had it right side over, Smittie (one of the other paddlers) was beside me rafted up to my kayak. I slipped my paddle into position as an outrigger and, as quick as I was out of the boat, I was back in. However, we were still in a wave zone and I flipped almost immediately. This time, I got back in, just as quick, and got out of the wave zone. Doug came over, we rafted up and I began the most difficult task of bailing out the boat. We have hand-operated pumps that work reasonably well, but as the water level in the boat drops, getting the last 5 to 8 cm that is floating in the cockpit out gets difficult and I ended up reverting to a sponge.
With most of the water out of my boat, I reattached my spraydeck to the cockpit and resumed paddling. Trying to bail out with my cockpit on, although recommended in all the kayak books was impossible with my hand pump. My boat still felt pretty sloppy as there was still a reasonable amount of water slopping about in the cockpit and I paddled cautiously until I was well in the lee of Double Island where I sponged out the last of the water. Luckily, neither my hat, nor my prescription sunglasses were lost in the incident.
Although I felt quite silly for capsizing my kayak in what was actually very easy conditions, I found the whole incident provided a good practice rescue in very safe conditions. I was only 5 or 10 metres off the beach in the little harbour and could have easily swum back in, plus, I was in a reasonable sized party of experienced and well equipped kayakers so the entire event was very safe.
As usual, I learnt a few things. One is, of course, to stay focused even when you are feeling relaxed and confident. The wave that capsized me was one of those sneaker waves that is a bit larger and more powerful than other waves. Secondly, even though I may never be able to eskimo roll a loaded boat, being able to roll an empty boat would have saved some time and been much quicker in this scenario taking less than a minute. Thirdly, pumping out a full cockpit takes some time and, it might be worthwhile either attempting to empty the cockpit by using a T-rescue or pumping the cockpit out before reentering. If more waves had been breaking I would not have been able to pump out with my spraydeck off as I did, and pumping out with my sprayskirt on was just not workable with my set-up. Finally, I am going to make sure everything in my cockpit is tied on in the event of a capsize. I have my hydration bladder behind my boat seat when I am paddling and I am lucky it did not fall out and sink.
And, now, it's back to trying to get a solid eskimo roll.