Words by Gene Cahill
Photos by Gene Cahill, Chris McDaid, Brian J. McMahon and Carl Minshall
“Accidents are not accidents but precise arrivals at the wrong right time”
Inishmurray is an island situated in Donegal Bay, off the coast of Co. Sligo. The island has the remains of an early Christian monastic settlement that date back to the 6th Century and there is also evidence of a cyst grave and carved stones which point to a prehistoric settlement also having being on the island. In more recent times, the island was inhabited by a small fishing and farming community until 1948, when the last remaining islanders left for a better life on the mainland. Should you ever be in County Sligo with a seakayak and the weather conditions are favourable, it is a beautiful island to visit and well worth the effort. The island lies approximately 7km off Streedagh on the Sligo coast.
On Saturday 8th October, members off the Irish Sea Kayaking Association (ISKA) gathered on the beach at Streedagh, Co. Sligo. The group leaders divided almost 40 kayakers into different groups dependent on ability and experience. The kayakers would all be kayaking to Inishmurray but in groups under the guidance of an experienced leader. Another peer-paddling group of ISKA members were also setting off for Inishmurray that morning. Conditions and the forecast were as good as they could be for October: Wind was a southeast to east force 2, rising to a possible force 4 in the afternoon. The weather was fair, with light cloud cover and some sunny spells. All in all, a good day’s kayaking lay ahead.
For Carl Minshall, an experienced member of the Belfast Kayak Club and Canoe Association of Northern Ireland, it was a good day to be on the water with likeminded friends. He joined the peer paddle, which contained many friends and kayaking acquaintances. The majority of them were members of the West of Ireland Sea Kayaking Association (WISKA) and the North Mayo Sea Kayakers. As he set off from the beach at Streedagh in his Wilderness Systems Tempest 180 Pro glass boat at approximately 10.30am, he had no idea that in about 6 hours later, he would be returning in a different boat having seen his own boat dashed and broken against the rocks off Inishmurray and being extremely fortunate not to have been seriously injured himself.
I myself was in one of the guided groups of approximately 12 paddlers who set off for Inishmurray. Our plan was to reach the island, and depending on conditions, do a circumnavigation before stopping for lunch and exploring the island before the return journey home. Having reached the island, the waters close to shore were a small bit choppy but certainly nothing dangerous. We had a brief chat offshore and we decided to do a counterclockwise circumnavigation and then land in one of the alcoves and have lunch. The coastline of Inishmurray is quite rocky and there are no beaches to make a clean landing. Any kayak landing would be onto a stony and rocky cove and again depending on conditions, they might require a swim landing or at least a walk-in landing.
As we circumnavigated, there was some nice swell in some of the rocky areas and after putting on our helmets, some of us enjoyed a bit of rockhopping and fun in the breaking surf. As we rounded the northwestern side of the island, there was a large breaking wave visible close to the rocky shore. We were weighing up our options of running close to the shore and having some fun in the surf when we heard a call over one of the VHFs that there was a kayaker from the peer-paddle group in the water in the area close to the breaking wave we had been watching. The kayaker had been caught by a wave and lifted towards the treacherous and rocky shoreline. As we paddled closer, and listened to what was happening over the VHF, we heard that the kayaker was out of his boat and was swimming out of the danger area, assisted by another kayaker.
The kayaker in question was Carl Minshall and later that evening and in subsequent contact with him, I would learn exactly what happened in those minutes that preceded our arrival. Carl had been following Conor Smith, an experienced WISKA kayaker through the breaking surf. He had seen and felt the clapotis but considered himself comfortable enough in the conditions and he knew he was far away from the rocky shore in the event of being caught off guard and dumped. Carl himself described the incident as he saw it and felt it happening:
“I was following Conor and looking around me to capture the shoreline etc on my helmet mounted go pro. I first became aware of the wave from the corner of my eye and I think Conor raised it to my attention. Unfortunately it caught me at the stern of the boat and on my right hand side, which would be my weaker side when it comes to rolls and bracing. I put a stern brace in but the wave was breaking and at the same time rising up along the boat lifting the bow at the same time, which ultimately flicked me over. As soon as I hit the water upside down now 180 degrees from my original travelling direction I realized that the force of the wave was extremely powerful and was pushing me towards shore at an extremely fast rate. I knew a roll was out of the question so I grabbed for my spray deck release. The force of the water was such that it pulled me back and it was on the third attempt that I managed to release. I didn’t even have to push out of the boat as the water rushing in pulled the boat off me.”
As he came out of the boat and resurfaced, the helmeted Carl saw another wave about to break…bringing his kayak on a collision course with him. Realising the danger he was facing, he ducked under the water before the wave broke, felt himself dragged closer to the rocky shoreline but thankfully the kayak didn’t hit him and nor did he hit any rocks. Conor Smith was alongside within seconds. Seeing Carl was in full control of his faculties and knowing that he himself could suffer the same fate, he urged Carl to swim out beyond the breaking surf under his watchful eye. As he swam out past the breakers, and into relatively safer waters, Conor towed him towards the other kayakers in his group who began rafting up so he could lie across their stern decks and be assessed for any injuries he may have suffered. His kayak had been picked up by the second wave and dashed and broken against the rocks under the water’s surface. As it surfaced in a V-shape – both stern and bow sticking out from the water – another group waited for the wave set to pass before getting in and attempting to tow it backwards to safety. However, the weight of water was dragging the front end of his boat under and despite the best efforts of the kayakers trying to save his boat, they were fighting a losing battle. Within a few minutes, the boat had split completely – the bow splitting just in front of the bulkhead and sliding beneath the waves, a spare set of brand new Celtic Kinetic 750 carbon blades strapped to the deck going with it.
At the time, Carl had no idea how close he had come to being dashed against the rocks himself. Had it happened, it would have been his broken body and not his broken kayak the kayakers were recovering from the water. As he was being pulled out, he noticed both the bow and stern of his kayak sticking out of the water and all he could think of at the time was “my boat’s f**ked”. He wasn’t in anyway panicked , but operating on the adrenaline that was coursing through his body he swam as hard and as fast as he could, and by his own admittance he was “glad to get onto the back of the boats as the swim out had been tough in those conditions.”
Carl was rafted a further 1km to safety as all the groups landed at one of the few areas safe to land. Thankfully conditions at the site were calm and the landing was easy. The group towing the remains of his kayak managed to bring it to the safety of the shore and then the task of what to do next began to be discussed in earnest. We were 7km from the mainland. Would Carl be rafted home? How long would that take? And then the WISKA crew began plotting a repair of the kayak. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder how they were going to repair it, because at least a third of it was somewhere on the western side of the island beneath the surface! A call went out for dry bags and paddle floats and a number of kayakers got to work, filling the empty space fore of the bulkhead with the bags and inflated paddle floats. With copious amounts of duct-tape – a kayaker’s best friend – they managed to seal the front of the kayak, and keep it buoyant, allowing it to be paddled! Macguyver himself would have been proud of the emergency repair!
ISKA member Sennan O’Boyle volunteered to swap boats with Carl as he relished the challenge of being the one to paddle home the broken boat! Cue much laughter and hilarity as the newly shortened kayak slipped into the water and the long paddle home started. The journey back allowed Carl Minshall himself to reflect on the incident more clearly but even then, he hadn’t realized how lucky he had been. Seeing his boat was certainly a shock but the paddlers accompanying him kept his spirits up with jokes and slagging and it helped prevent Carl from analyzing the incident too much.
Arriving back on Streedagh beach, a large cheer went up – a lot of joking but also probably a recognition of a job well done. Everyone had made it home safe despite a big incident. As the broken kayak, ably piloted by Sennan approached the waiting crew on the beach, a call went up for a roll, to which Sennan duly obliged! On the beach as we unloaded our gear, and the bravado and adrenaline wore off, Carl passed a comment which highlighted a more reflective and reasoned analysis of the incident. When asked how he felt seeing his boat so damaged he simply replied “boats can be replaced, the human body can’t.”
It would be another two days before the full scale of the incident hit Carl. It was lunchtime the following Monday when he started to really think clearly about it and a wave of nausea passed over him as he realized “just how lucky I had been and that the situation could have been fatal and a massive impact on my family and everyone who had been on the paddle.”
Having been a distant observer to the whole incident, the one thing that struck me about it was the calm, clear and decisive thinking that followed the incident occurring. At no stage did I detect any hint of panic or sense of worry from anyone involved. Even Carl himself, was a picture of calm as he was hauled onto the stern decks of the kayaks after having swum out. Carl credits his reaction to regularly practicing rescues and incident management in challenging conditions with the Belfast Kayak Club and the quick and decisive actions of the WISKA members on hand. “Regular training and practicing of rescue scenarios paid off in that I wasn’t injured and that I remained calm and followed the instructions from the WISKA crew who came in for the rescue, with Conor being the initial person on scene.”
Within minutes of his safe arrival on the mainland, pictures of his broken boat and the story of the incident were quickly making their way onto social media and as usual in these circumstances, judgement from people not involved or present on the day would inevitably follow. For many people involved in such an incident, the way forward would be to keep quiet and hope the whole story blows over quickly. Carl decided to take a different approach. Instead of staying quiet, Carl put his story out there. He posted the footage from his helmet-mounted GoPro onto YouTube (see link below) and used the incident as a valuable learning experience. He did not want to run and hide. “I’m an honest person and I wanted to put the video up to show others but at the same time point out where things could possibly have been different. It was also important to show that in incidents such as this, remaining calm, following rescue procedures, having good group awareness and quick reactions can lead to a successful outcome in challenging conditions.”
About a month later, when things had calmed down, I asked Carl if in hindsight, having reviewed the GoPro footage himself and reflected on events, he saw the incident as the result of a bad decision (i.e. going too close to the shore knowing the surf was breaking) or did he feel it was just a freak accident? With his usual candour and honesty, he admitted that he probably had “taken my eyes off the surroundings too much and if he hadn’t, he would have read a few signs around him.” However, he also recognized that seakayaking itself “carries a certain element of risk and the sea can be unpredictable, and I do feel that this was also partly a freak accident. It won’t stop me rockhopping and taking calculated risks as that to me is part of the sport.” When I asked him what the most valuable lesson he learned from his experience, he initially joked that he should never follow Conor Smith! But the big thing he took from it, and something he plans on developing into his future training is that “turning over onto your back and kicking out with your legs and using arms in a frog-like sweep made a huge difference in punching out of the danger zone, as I was initially on my front, which would be the normal practice for a swim out, but I was getting nowhere in that position.” The incident hasn’t deterred Carl in anyway from the sport that he loves. He has learned lessons, developed new rescue practices and continues to seakayak!
Footage from Carl’s helmet mounted GoPro can be seen here:
I would like to express my sincere thanks to Carl for answering my many questions on the incident while I put this article together.