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?



  1. The December 2010 edition of Sea Kayaker magazine has an article describing "killer canoe" newspaper reports of the 1920's. There's danger in many sporting activities. Football head injury reports don't keep people from playing. Most inlanders won't experience problems in their rec boats. Unfortunately, swimmers drown in lakes all the time. People drink alcohol in boats frequently. Newbie power boat owners are just as ignorant as newbie kayakers.

    I myself, after paddling a Necky Manitou for six months, didn't realize the sophistication of kayaking until attending the East Coast Canoe & Kayak Festival in Charleston SC, attending classroom sessions, and watched the on-the-water demos by highly skilled paddlers. (btw, Nigel Foster is AMAZING!)

    Most coastal residents are aware of the dangers of the sea. I'm shocked about the Portland teens. But I don't get the impression that LL Bean guided tours in the area are paragons for the industry.

    Net-net? I think PFD requirements are good in cold weather, but legislation beyond that would be counter-productive. "Folks is folks" as Pogo said. Public Service Announcement commercials seem like the best hope.

  2. Thanks for adding your thoughts. Just curious, did you buy your Necky Manitou at a specialty paddle sports shop, or did you get it at a larger "big box" sporting goods or outdoor store? I worked at a paddle sports store for almost 9 years. The first thing I instructed my staff to do when selling a kayak was to find out if there was any possibility that the customer might take it out on Lake Michigan (I worked in Milwaukee). If there was any hesitation or possibility that the boat would be used on large bodies of water, the staff was expected to direct the customer to a longer touring/sea kayak along with an explanation of why that was the safer option. I know that customers at "big box" stores will not get that kind of information. I would like to see the kayak industry include some sort of brochure with each boat sold, similar to the ones that must be attached to every PFD sold.

  3. I'll admit my article was a bit "over the top" - BUT it was done on purpose to raise awareness. I don't rep any manufacturer of boats or gear. I'm thrilled people want to kayak and own a boat. All sellers should have brochures available for local kayaking classes, ACA instructors in the area, etc., etc. Getting solid quality education and info to first time buyers is vital to the proliferation of the sport. Unfortunately Mother Nature takes prisoners without remorse and personal responsible is huge in this sport.

    Happy Holiday's to all paddling advocates !