Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Chapter 9: Rough Passages" and a Modern Tragedy

I just became aware of two kayaking fatalities near Portland, Maine. As it happens, the next chapter of "Sea Kayaker, Deep Trouble" also deals with a fatality. "Chapter 9: Rough Passages" relates the story of David Kelley, age 26, who died in 1987. The story I read in "The Portland Press Herald" is about 2 young women, Irina McEntee and Carissa Ireland, who were found dead after being reported overdue from a kayak outing on Casco Bay on May 16, 2010.

In both cases, there are no witnesses who can give us a definitive account of what led to the deaths. Perhaps nothing short of staying on shore would have saved any of these three young people. However, it is apparent that there were some big strikes against all of them once they decided to set out on their trips. The water temperature in Rosario Strait in 1987 was around 45 degrees. The water in Casco Bay in 2010 was about 46 degrees. All three were wearing PFD's, but none of the three paddlers was dressed for immersion in such cold water. None of them was wearing a wetsuit, let alone a drysuit. It does not appear that any of them were equipped with the means to summon help.

At this point, the two stories diverge. The sea conditions for David Kelley were extremely bad, but he had a kayak that was suited for open water paddling and had practiced solo rescues, at least in a pool. There was evidence that he attempted to rescue himself at least once. On the other hand, the two young women in Maine were using kayaks that should not have been out on open water, even in the relatively mild 1-foot seas that were encountered last Sunday. The kayak models were not identified in the story, but were described as being "12-foot". There isn't any kayak of that length that belongs on the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Even with practice, it is really not possible to perform reliable rescues with short, recreational kayaks. At this time, it is not known if the women had tried to perform any rescues.

In my mind, there is reason to believe that all three of the kayakers had a false sense of security that betrayed them and ultimately cost them their lives. David Kelley had been paddling for two years, had paddled the boat he was using several times in the past, learned how to roll in a pool in just 15 minutes, and had practiced his rescues successfully in a pool. Irina McEntee and Carissa Ireland were making a 1-mile crossing from the summer home of McEntee's family. The McEntee family had been coming to their summer home for 10 years and it was reported that the whole family liked to kayak. I suspect that this family had been using these kayaks for several years and since most recreational kayaks give a strong feeling of stability in calm conditions, Irina was emboldened to take her friend out on an ill-advised open water crossing assuming that nothing bad could happen.

At this point, I think that we can safely say that no matter what the problem was that occurred last Sunday off the coast of Maine, the women and their kayaks were not equipped to handle it. If you wish to dispute the following assertion on my part, there is a comment section for this blog and I welcome the opportunity to discuss this point. Most paddlers do not have a death wish and are not actively seeking to take excessive risk (although this may have been an attraction for David Kelley, we don't know). However, a lack of experience, instruction, and knowledge is usually to blame when someone finds themselves struggling to survive a dangerous situation. Many people buy recreational kayaks at big box stores where they receive absolutely no information on the need for training and additional safety gear. I would encourage you to read the blog post by Willi Gutmann about the dangers of buying recreational kayaks at places other than paddle sports stores.

Do you disagree? I'm not a fan of legislating safety, but how do we help to prevent the sport of kayaking from getting a bad reputation as a result of incidents like the ones in "Sea Kayaker-Deep Trouble" or the accident in Maine? Your thoughts?


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Chapter 8: Long Swims

Are you prepared to spend a long time in the water when you go kayaking? Richard Hudson had no intentions of spending any time in the water as he was finishing up his 1,700-mile trip down the Yukon River in 1986. He had just 40 miles to go to get to Nome where he planned to end the trip when he got hit broadside by a breaking wave and was knocked over. He managed to brace back up but got knocked over again before deciding to wet exit.

Richard was pretty well prepared with gear and had quite a bit of paddling experience, but still found himself swimming in 45-degree water in a remote location. Without getting into what he might have done differently to avoid finding himself in this situation, I think the important question we all need to ask ourselves is "How would I handle having to swim in 45-degree (or just cold) water if I was unable to re-enter my kayak?" (And believe me, there are plenty of reasons why even the most skilled paddler might find him/herself in the water unable to get back into a kayak.)

Have you gone swimming in the clothing that you paddle in? What were you wearing? How long were you in the water? How cold was the water?

If you don't know what to wear, I suggest you read my blog posts on "Dressing for Paddling - Parts 1, 2, & 3" on my website,

If you haven't taken the time to test out your cold water paddling gear by taking an intentional swim, now is a good time (at least here in the upper Midwest). The water is still pretty cold, but the air temperature is a little more moderate. Take your swim near shore and time how long you can stay in the water before you start to get too cold. Make sure you have a warm building or car to go into when you're done. It would also be a good idea to have someone standing by on shore to keep an eye on you just in case. Let's hear your results.