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Fringe Elements Skills: Kayaking – Surviving a Whirlpool

By Fitz Cahall, Video still by Byran Smith.

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“The most intimidating feature for any swimmer, is real swirly, really deep whirlpools,” says professional kayaker and guide Paul Kuthe. “They have a tendency to hold you under water for a long time.”

To exploratory kayakers such as Kuthe, whirlpools sit at the top of the list of why swimming—kayaking parlance for coming out of a boat—through a surging tidal race could be hazardous. As Kuthe and his group of friends began applying whitewater kayaking techniques to sea kayaking, they had to accept that errant paddle strokes would result in swims through some of the ocean’s most turbulent sections.

“Swimming is to be avoided at all costs, but there is a saying in the boating community that we are all just in between swims,” says Kuthe. “No matter how experienced you get, the only time you’re not going to swim again is if you quit the sport.”

During the filming of Fringe Elements, Kuthe took an unexpected swim at the Reversing Falls of New Brunswick’s St. Johns River.

“A quarter mile downstream was the biggest whirlpool I’d ever seen,” remembers Kuthe. “That’s all I could think about when I came out of my boat. I’ve been held down in whirlpools before, just for a few moments before the PFD [personal flotation device] or the boat’s buoyancy pulled me to the surface. I didn’t want to go into that whirlpool.”

Kuthe seeks out tidal races when they are most powerful. House-size waves at places like British Columbia’s Skookumchuck Narrows and Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie River develop only a few times a year.

“These tidal features are at their best when you have very, very deep water transitioning to very shallow water,” says Kuthe. “In some places it can be 1,000 or 2,000 feet deep, and then all of a sudden it flows into water that might be 100 feet or even 30 feet deep.”

“You get the biggest tidal exchanges in the spring tides, so there isn’t a big window,” says Kuthe. “Typically it’s best as the high tide drains to low tide. This also has to fall during daylight hours.”

The bottom line: There are only a handful of days a year when Kuthe can push the standards of this developing sea kayaking niche.