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  • Radford Bean

Paddle Safely - Your Life Depends on It

It's an early fall day; you set out in the morning; the water is calm and as smooth a sheet of glass; there's not a cloud in the sky; the sun has started to creep above the ridge behind you, bathing the water ahead of you in amber light. You think to yourself, "With water like this, I don't need to wear my lifejacket." So you set out, life jacket tucked behind you. Your kayak isn't fitted with a spray skirt, there are no waves to be concerned about, you fail to see the need for the spray skirt, so you leave it behind in your vehicle.

I recently led a paddle trip to Freshwater Bay on the northern border of the Olympic Peninsula. If you haven’t had a chance to paddle the area, you owe it to yourself to spend a few hours paddling from Freshwater Bay to Crescent Bay.

As my group was returning from our paddle, I happened to notice a husband and wife setting out on a Hobie sit-on-top kayak—not sure that kayak was designed to accommodate two occupants—but that’s not really what alarmed me. What gave me pause for concern was a couple of factors.

Let me back up just a bit and mention that the day before I had led this same group on a paddle trip in Port Angeles Harbor. When we started out on our trip, the water was calm with just gentle swells, the kind that could lull a baby to sleep. About an hour into our paddle, the winds abruptly came up, turning what had been placid water into a choppy mess with foot-and-a-half waves. I had my marine radio with me, so I wasn’t caught off-guard by the wind or the waves, just a little surprised at how fast the water had changed from calm to chaotic. A Coast Guard helicopter flew over us a couple of times, no doubt making sure we were okay, which we were because we were prepared and properly outfitted with immersion wear and spray skirts. All in my group made it safely back to the launch site that late afternoon.

I should also mention that in April 2015 two kayakers died when their kayaks capsized in Dungeness Bay, which is also located in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. When they set out on their paddle, weather conditions were fine, but later that day, after returning from visit to the lighthouse out on the spit, the winds came up as they had been forecasted to do. These paddlers were not wearing immersion wear and were paddling sea kayak without spray skirts. The two paddlers died from hypothermia. A third kayaker that capsized survived but spent several days in the hospital.

Back to that couple I witnessed the day I led the trip on Freshwater Bay, the water temperature was about 54° F (it only takes 15 minutes in water that is 41° F for hypothermia to set in). This couple set out wearing no immersion wear or personal flotation device (PFD). I had stressed to those paddling with me that immersion wear was required, so we were all either wearing a dry suit or wetsuit. A couple of snorklers I had spotted exiting Freshwater Bay were dressed in wetsuits, so clearly the water was cold.

I like to use the 120 Rule, which basically states that if the combined air and water temperature is equal to or less than 120° F, immersion wear of some form must be worn. Where we were paddling, the surface water temperature was 54.1° F, and the air temperature was 67° F, equaling a combined temperature of 121.1° F. Given the water temperature where we were paddling, a 3 mm wetsuit would have been sufficient. I chose to wear my dry suit to play it safe.

Even in 70° F water, hypothermia can set in, it would just happen over a much longer period of time. The reason is a body’s normal core temperature is approximately 98.5° F. Any external temperature that is less than the body core temperature is going to draw heat away from the body through a process called conduction; water draws heat away quicker than air.

During our trip out of Freshwater Bay into the Strait, I had been monitoring the weather on my marine radio. NOAA had announced a small craft warning later for the day. A member of my group rushed over to let the couple know as they were beginning their paddle out into the bay that there was a small craft warning posted for later in the day.

Sit-on-top kayaks are relatively stable, but I wondered how easy it would be for two people to climb back onto the kayak were they to capsize. It’s no easy task for one person to climb back into a kayak when the kayak capsizes, especially in rough conditions. I could only imagine it would be even harder for two people to climb back onto a kayak designed for one person, which would mean having to spend more time in the chilly water.

I mention this incident because states and the Coast Guard have seen a dramatic increase in drownings related to paddling. Part of that is due to the increased popularity in paddling. More alarming is the lack of training and safety awareness many have because they bought their boats not from a retailer who specializes in paddling but from a big-box store. Safety and training aren’t stressed at these big-box stores.

In 2004, the Coast Guard reported that 98 paddlers died while kayaking or canoeing; in 2015, that number jumped to 139. Personal watercraft—canoes, kayaks, SUPs—accounted for 19 percent of all boating deaths; only open motorboats had a higher death rate. Of that 19 percent, 12 percent of those deaths involved kayaking, 11 percent involved canoeing.

Clearly, there needs to be a greater push to educate new paddlers on how to be safe on the water, and that push needs to begin at the point of sale when someone purchases a boat. However, the emphasis on paddler safety doesn’t end there. Helping educate paddlers on how to be safe on the water is also the responsibility of marine boards, fellow paddlers, and paddling organizations. I hope this article will serve to educate new paddlers on how to be safe on the water by being prepared for emergencies that could arise.

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