Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cowboy Scramble up the awesome Wilderness Systems Tempest 165 Pro

Here we go again. Cowboy Scrambling!

I plan to Cowboy Scramble up every awesome sea kayak I test. It has become a benchmark manoeuvre for me. I must be able to Cowboy Scramble up a sea kayak's back deck and get back inside the cockpit by myself quickly and easily in calm water and in moderate wind and waves (at the very least), or it's off my list as a kayak I'd buy, rent, or paddle on a trip with an outfitter.

I can't roll a kayak yet, but I'm working on that again this year with my awesome Maelstrom Vital 166, and some awesome people, the ones who help us learn, encourage us to keep trying, and don't give up on us when we aren't brilliant. Trying to learn how to roll has been a real struggle for me for several years.

Even if I get the roll, I'll still need my Cowboy Scramble and other rescue techniques. I'm not a strong paddler. I'm not an instructor. I use simple techniques, take lessons and attend clinics from time-to-time, listen to advice from experienced paddlers, and then throw in a little practice to improve my paddling skills . . .and make sure I don't lose them. It's easy to forget stuff over the long winters when you don't paddle for 6 or 7 months.

It's also interesting to test your skills and confidence by testing different kayaks. Some kayaks make you feel secure and happy, others make you realize you'd better up your skills, and some just make you want to get out!

The Wilderness Systems Tempest 165 Pro is a low volume fibreglass sea kayak with a skeg, keyhole cockpit, 16'6" long, 21.5 inches wide, and weighs 49 lbs. I'm 5'6" tall, weigh 125 lbs., and I have really long legs to stuff into the cockpit once I get my seat inside. The Tempest 170 and 180 is available for larger paddlers.

This is a Cowboy Scramble up the Wilderness Systems Tempest 165 Pro on a windy day with a "No Swim Advisory on the beach, so I have to make it fast. 10 seconds is good.

1. I hold on to my paddle and my kayak with one hand, and position myself just behind the back hatch. Next, I secure my spray skirt. I pull my spray skirt tab up and secure it to the shoulder of my PFD with a quick release clip, or I stuff the spray skirt tab and lip of the spray skirt down the front of my PFD to keep it up over my chest and secure, so I won't find it getting stuck between my legs when I scramble up the kayak. I won't put my spray skirt tab in my teeth today to secure it. There is a "No Swim Advisory" sign posted at the beach and I don't trust the water quality. With the spray skirt secure, I reach over to the far side of the kayak with my other hand. Now I'm ready to start the scramble. I have to do all this fast. The kayak has no weight on it, and is being blown around in the wind.
2. I count quickly, one, two, three! I Take a deep breath to make myself buoyant, and kick my legs to bring myself up. Awesome. When my torso is up out of the water, then I put weight over the back deck of the kayak. I don't pull on the kayak or the deck lines when I'm down in the water. You can't pull yourself up with your arms from the water- if you do, you'll just pull the kayak over on top of you. You've got to get your shoulders and torso up out of the water a bit so you can put weight on the back deck and balance over the boat. I've got a forearm on the back deck, (you don't want to come up and elbow your back hatch and risk imploding a rubber hatch) and my other hand is pushing down. I'm balanced and the kayak's tail has lowered nicely into the water to welcome me on board! The wind is still blowing, but now that I've got weight on the kayak, I start to have a little more control. Now I'm ready to swing my leg over and mount the kayak like a horse.
3. The fun starts here. I keep my paddle in front of me and use my arms to hang on to the deck lines or sides of the kayak and pull with my arms as I gently "inch worm" my way up the back deck until I reach the cockpit. See, my legs don't kick in the water. My thighs are doing the leg work by gently gripping the sides of the kayak. Don't grip hard. It will make you lose your balance and you'll get bruises on the insides of your thighs. When I see others trying to do the Cowboy Scramble and they try to kick their legs to propel themselves forward at this point, it just seems to make them unbalanced and tippy. I don't kick with my legs - I "inch worm".
4. When I reach the rear of the kayak's cockpit, sometimes I sit up on the back deck and take a break or grab my paddle and brace if things are tippy. Sitting on the back deck, just behind the cockpit, may also allow me to paddle away from an obstacle if the wind and water have pushed me too close. Or, I can stay low on my kayak, and keep pulling with my arms and "inch worming" my way forward with my legs until my seat is over the opening of the cockpit and I can lower myself in. As I move forward over the cockpit, I let my paddle slide along with me in my lap so I don't lose it and can grab it to brace when I get into the cockpit if I need to.

5. This is the tricky part. The big moment of truth. Getting your seat into the seat of the kayak! I always wonder, "Am I staying in, or going back out!" The Wilderness Systems Tempest 165 Pro feels pretty stable to me in moderate wind that is pushing me around, so I'm smiling! I won't have to go swimming again!
6.  There's a little time for me to claim victory.  I can't resist. I've got my seat into the kayak and I feel stable again. Love you Tempest!
7. Here's the unsexy part that the camera guy loves to shoot. The part when you've plopped your seat into the kayak cockpit and you've got to lean back to get the legs in one at a time. This is why I like keyhole cockpits! I need that space in front to get my long legs in quickly and easily. But see, I've still got my paddle handy and my spray skirt isn't stuck between my legs. I'll be able to put it on more easily if it's free and I'm not sitting on it. If you don't secure the front of your spray skirt before you scramble up, you'll be sorry. Don't forget to do that in Step 1, or you may fall back into that nasty water at this point trying to get your spray skirt out from under you. Lots of people forget! I don't anymore.
8. Now, it's time to get the spray skirt on fast and get the hell out of here because the wind and waves are pushing us into some beach ropes.

And we did all this stuff in about 10 seconds. Two thumbs up! 

I found the Cowboy Scramble really easy in the Wilderness Systems Tempest 165 Pro sea kayak on a windy, wavey day when I tested it. 
There was also a "No Swim Advisory" sign posted on the beach where I launched from. That was an "Oh crap!" kayaking moment, since I was also testing the Current Designs Suka the same night and I wanted to test Cowboy Scrambling up each kayak. But, I need to be in the water to Cowboy Scramble. You can either wet exit to get out of the kayak, or hop over the side of the cockpit, or swim out to deeper water with the kayak to practice. But, when it's windy, swimming next to the kayak and holding onto it, and your paddle isn't easy! 

What to do? Go home? Or get in and out of the water fast? What motivation.

Because of the "No Swim Advisory" from a previous day's rainfall, which unleashes unwanted stuff from the City of Ottawa's sewage systems into the Ottawa River, I told the camera guy, "I'm only going to do this once. I'll swim out to deeper water with the kayak and do it fast. So please shoot what you can. I won't have time to pause in between the steps for shots."

I chose the Wilderness Systems Tempest 165 Pro over the Current Designs Suka for my one chance at getting out of the water and into the kayak fast. Interesting, eh? Deciding which kayak you'd rather be in when stuff gets a little nasty changes. The Suka has a smaller keyhole cockpit, little primary stability, and is stiffer to turn without a good edge, but it is a faster kayak. All stuff that doesn't help me when I need to get back into my kayak from the water.
Red, fibreglass Wilderness Systems Tempest 165 Pro
I always get a big adrenalin rush when I do the Cowboy Scramble. It really wakes you up! Especially when conditions are a little more challenging and you don't know if you're going to make it. But I got it the first try with the Tempest.

Why do I keep talking about the Cowboy Scramble and sharing it with you?

Because I couldn't do the Cowboy Scramble when I first tried and gave up . . . for several years! I thought I needed a paddle float. I didn't. I just needed to learn a few simple tricks! Now I practice it almost every time I paddle. It may look a little different each time I do it and on different kayaks, but I always follow the same steps.

For more tips on how I Cowboy Scramble up the Boreal Baffin and Maelstrom Vital 166 see:
For more about my test of the Wilderness Systems Tempest 165 Pro sea kayak see:

Testing the Wilderness Systems Tempest 165 again. Gotta love it!

Enjoy your Cowboy Scrambles! 
The BaffinPaddler 

  • Photos courtesy of Jeremy Cherpit.
  • Thanks to Ottawa Paddle Shack and staff for letting me test the Wilderness Systems Tempest 165 Pro. 


  1. This is a really great set of instructions and photographs - thanks so much for sharing! I've never had much success with the Cowboy Scramble, which I've always attributed to too much mass above the waistline and too little flexibility. But you've given me some great pointers here and I'm going to give it another shot.

  2. Awesome! I'm happy to hear that. Let us know if you get it and what helps you. I'm pretty sure you can do it in your awesome Wilderness Systems Zephyr. You can already roll, so the Cowboy Scramble is another cool frontier to master. I hope to see it on your blog too! I want to see more Cowboy Scramblers out there. It's just cool!

    Cheers from Canada!
    It is a sauna here this week - perfect for rolling lessons, my next up-side-down frontier.

  3. Same here: tried the cowboy move for years and then gave up. Unless it's rather calm waters (that's not when I fall in to need to rescue) I got fat chance to scramble back up into the cockpit.
    Eventually I had to learn to re-enter and roll.
    PS If I am in your hood I take up the offer on that beer. Of course the same goes if you happen to make it Downunder... I will buy you dinner :-)

  4. Thanks! Sounds like I got the better deal.

    I betcha you can still scramble. Try it on different boats and see if one is kinder to you. I've seen more than one guy who said, "I've never been able to do this before" say with surprise, "This is the first time I've been able to do it." And they were all rollers.

    I'd love to see you get the scramble and put it on your blog. It would motivate others.

    Everyone talks about rolling. I'm hoping to bring the Cowboy Scramble back to the table. It's easier to learn than the roll.

    But some sea kayaks don't have welcoming flat back decks, and have very twitchy chines with little primary stability. They are difficult to scramble up.

    That's why I've decided to test more and more sea kayaks to see how they respond to the Cowboy Scramble. I can do it up so many different models now. Boat design matters, it's not just the paddler.

    I'll have to find a few kayaks that buck me off consistently. That'll be fun (in clean water)! But I wouldn't buy that kayak!

    Meanwhile, my new mission this year is learning how to roll . . . I've got the kayaks for that!

    And still dreaming of kayak sailing thanks to your blog.

    Cheers from Canada!