A Hard Lesson Learned Tragically

April 14, 2015

 

A tragic event occurred on April 12 in which two kayakers lost their lives and left another one fighting for his life after they got caught in a storm. A party of seven kayakers set out from Dungeness Spit Lighthouse to paddle the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Weather conditions were calm when they set out, but around 1:20 p.m. the winds picked up, creating three-foot swells. Though the kayakers were wearing PFDs, it appears from the news article and a photo taken by one of the paddlers that none of them were wearing dry suits, nor did they have spray skirts covering their cockpits. These were two critical mistakes the group made. They should have never paddled the Strait in a kayak without wearing a dry suit and having a spray skirt covering the cockpit of the kayaks.

 

Two important points come to mind after reading about this tragic event, and one of those points is based on first-hand experience.

 

First, always research the area where you’ll be paddling before setting out on your trip. Know what weather conditions you could face. Understand the physical and geographical circumstances you might encounter. The weather on Sunday called for heavy rains at times. This should have been the first clue that the day wasn’t ideally suited for paddling. I have come to rely on weather forecasts before I set out or lead paddling trips.

 

I learned a big lesson about the importance of checking weather forecasts before paddling years ago when I set out with my very young daughter to paddle Skamokawa Creek in southwest Washington. My daughter was only five at the time. At the time we launched on the Columbia River, there was no wind and the water was very placid. Halfway into the paddle trip up the creek, the winds began to pick up. I decided it was time for us to head back to beach where we had launched from earlier in the day. When we reached the Columbia River, what had been calm water earlier in the day had turned to two-foot swells. Making matters worse was that the wind caused my canoe to turn so that the waves were blowing broadside against my canoe, creating a very dangerous situation. Despite my paddling skills, I was unable to keep my canoe pointed into the wind. Rather than risk my daughter’s and my lives, I decided the safest thing for us to do was line the canoe along the shore back to where we had launched.

 

Anyone who has paddled the Columbia River knows the water conditions on that river can change almost in the blink of an eye. I was fairly new to the area. Though I had paddled the Columbia River a few times previously and had never experienced such a sudden change of weather, I should have checked the weather forecast that day.

 

Second, know your paddling limitations. The news article didn’t make it clear if any in the kayak party had ever taken an immersion course or had any training in open-water paddling, rolls, and rescues. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is not some small lake or lazy river. It’s basically open ocean and heavily traveled. There are freighters, ferries, sailboats, killer whale pods, naval vessels, and other hazards to contend with. You shouldn’t paddle a location unless you are properly geared up for that location. Since these kayakers were paddling in open ocean, they should have been wearing dry suits, carrying a marine radio, and fitted with GPS locators. Had the three who capsized been wearing dry suits, two of them might not have died from hypothermia and the third in critical condition.

 

Proper training would have stressed these points to the paddlers. Also, take courses in roll techniques and water rescues. That training could save your life. It’s unknown if any of those paddlers in the news article had any training in either rescues or rolls.

 

Alder Creek offers open-water, immersion, rescue, and roll training. If you’re planning on paddling in open water, I strongly recommend taking the courses. It wouldn’t hurt taking the courses even if the closest you come to paddling in open water is paddling the many bays in Oregon. Winds can become just as treacherous on Tillamook Bay as they can on the Puget Sound or any very large lake like Timothy, Waldo, Billy Chinook, or Odell.

 

Finally, if you’re unfamiliar with an area, it is advisable for the first time to paddle with someone who is knowledgeable about the area. This person will be aware of weather patterns in the area and other natural hazards. From the news article, it appears this was a group of friends from outside the local area who decided to paddle in the Strait.

 

Last year I was leading a paddle trip on the Yamhill River. It had rained heavily just a few days earlier, and the river was running swift. Because of potential hazards from downed trees, I decided to postpone the trip for a couple of weeks. Had these kayakers set out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca with someone experienced in paddling the Strait, the tragic accident that befell the group would probably have been avoided.

 

Clearly these people were not familiar with the area. One might even question how experienced they were at kayaking.  As any experienced kayaker knows, there is only about six inches of freeboard between the water and the cockpit. Any waves higher than that can easily flood the cockpit if a spray skirt isn’t attached. One must always expect to encounter waves on the ocean even if the water at the time appears tranquil. A large wake from a freighter could have had the same effect.

 

The bottom line is this: This tragic event could have been prevented with proper training, proper gear, and knowledge of the weather pattern for that day. Sadly, it’s a lesson learned tragically the hard way.

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