Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sea Kayaker Magazine's "More Deep Trouble" is a warning to kayakers who do not make safety the most important thing for every outing

       No one launches a kayak hoping to be fighting for their lives against the forces of nature a few hours later.  But sometimes it happens that way and when it does sometimes nature wins.  Sea Kayaker Magazine's, "More Deep Trouble," a collection of 29 true-life kayak tragedies and near tragedies, tracks from put-in to rescue or recovery how quickly a life and death situation can develop when kayaking on open water.
        Each story begins with a narrative of the event including all the details that would impact the outcome:  What training and experience did the kayakers have?  Did their skills match the weather and sea conditions they were expecting?  Did they have proper safety or survival gear and had they practiced using them?  Were they prepared for a change in the weather?
       Facts were gleaned from survivors, witnesses on the shore, first responders and locals who participated in rescues.  The narrative is followed by a point-by-point critique by kayaking experts who describe in detail what measures could have been taken to prevent the circumstances that led to each life-threatening situation.
         Numerous sidebars provide valuable context. Explained are how rough water rescues are supposed to work, the economics of decision making, how to avoid being trapped in an overturned kayak cockpit and  how to select and operate EPIRB emergency signaling units, PLB's and VHF marine radios.  Several of these side stories address situations when the kayaker becomes the rescuer in crowded water when boaters, swimmers and kite boarders get in trouble.
       Its all there; the shock of hitting freezing water in a capsize, the rescue flares no one sees, the helplessness felt when arms, hands and fingers are too cold to move, and for the lucky, the feeling of relief when plucked from a stormy sea or lake by a rescue helicopter or heroic citizen boater.
       Each fail had a different genesis, such as grossly over estimating paddling speed when planning an 86-mile crossing of Lake Michigan or failing to study the latest weather forecast.  Small errors in planning (i.e. failing to put fresh batteries in electronic gear) compounded what would have been a minor problem on land into a major emergency on open water.  Failure to leave a detailed float plan with someone on shore delayed a rescue response for many hours in one story.  At least one kayaker discovered, almost too late, that cell phones are not waterproof.
       But in the end it was not being properly dressed for extended periods of immersion in cold water that killed.   Knowing and practicing self-rescue (getting back into a righted sit-in kayak cockpit and pumping out the water) would have saved some.  However the best defense against hypothermia is leaving the launch wearing clothing that insulates against the cold of an unexpected cold water immersion; wet suits or expensive dry suits.
       Just learning to paddle proved to be fatal in one case.  In Maine, a 51-year old male practicing a low brace during a six-hour sea kayaking course for beginning paddlers, capsized and drowned.  Suddenly dunked into 58 degree water he panicked, leaving him unable to remove his fabric spray deck and exit the overturned cockpit.   In the seconds it took for rescuers to reach him he swallowed a fatal amount of sea water gasping for air underwater.  The group had practiced removing spray skirts on land just hours earlier.
       Knowing what to do offered no immunity to disaster in some cases.  Those with safety gear--pumps, paddle floats, flares, VHF radios--often had these safety essentials sealed in a hatch and not accessible to them when they needed them the most.  Beginners not dressed for immersion in 50 degree water never got a second chance.  (Some VHF radios that fit in a PFD pocket are now waterproof and will float.)
        Many tempted fate and lost by not checking batteries in emergency signaling devices before launching or who waiting until capsized in freezing water before donning life vests.  But perhaps most frightening are the stories of cautious, veteran sea kayakers with years of experience and several bombproof self-rescue techniques and possessing essential safety gear suddenly seeing their life depend on somebody rescuing them, and quickly.  In a chilling first-person account, a surviving kayaker details the horror of seeing his partner capsizing into a 34 degree ocean with 20 foot waves off Greenland's rocky cliffs while he was prevented from reaching her by howling winds and big waves as she repeatedly screamed for his help.
         Local yakers can feel a shred of comfort from the fact most of the incidents involve kayakers in waters foreign to us here on the Gulf Coast.  The gray whale that chopped a kayak in half, "In Awe, In Trouble" is not likely to show up in Mississippi Sound.  Deer Island has snakes and alligators but no grizzly bears as in "Attacked by a Bear in the Middle of Nowhere."
        Here in the sunny south there are no dangerous tidal rips to suck us out to sea and there are no rocky cliffs preventing us from getting off the water in an emergency.  Unlike kayak Meccas in the Pacific Northwest, Maine, Canada and the Great Lakes where the water is cold year around and paddlers protect themselves from hypothermia by wearing wet suits even in summer, waters we paddle in are above 70 degrees three seasons of the year.  T-shirts and shorts are our summer paddling togs.
     But that does not mean we can ignore the lessons these paddlers learned the hard way.  Experts recommend paddlers know how to brace confidently before venturing on water with waves over one foot, a common sea condition in the shallow bays, sounds and lakes here.  Even on a calm day, boat wakes of two feet and higher are not uncommon.  Hypothermia, a theme in almost every incident in "More Deep Trouble," from Alaska to Costa Rica, can be experienced here in winter and even late fall and early spring.  And you can never be reminded enough how quickly a change in the weather or wind direction can turn a cruise to a white-knuckled passage for the unprepared or unskilled kayaker.
      Many of the "More Deep Trouble" tragedies had their roots in bad decisions we all can make.   Faulty reasoning combined with an outright arrogance of the power of nature are human failings not limited to the northern latitudes.  To err is to be human. 
     The book's vivid and efficient telling of these tragic events adds to their drama; there is no need for embellishment to drive the terror home.  This exchange in "Life and Death off Baffin Island", makes the point.  Near the Arctic Circle, as a novice kayaker is rapidly being blown into ever higher and steeper freezing seas by an off shore wind.  She shouts for help.  When told to keep calm,  she said that she was calm but didn't know what to do.  The response?  "Keep upright," she was told.  The body of the 43-year old globe-trotting management specialist was never found. 
        In many ways the stories in "More Deep Trouble," read like the classic tragic short story, "To Build a Fire," by Jack London. In London's 1904 tale of man vs. nature, a greenhorn is walking back alone to his buddies in camp on a bitterly cold winter's day (spittle freezes solid before it hits the snow) in Alaska's Yukon Territory.  As the story unfolds it is revealed that while nature will not go out of its way to help or hinder man, nature does not care if man survives or not.  A good thought to keep if going to sea in a small boat.
       "More Deep Trouble"is the second collection of narratives about good trips gone bad from the pages of Sea Kayaker Magazine.  "Deep Trouble--True Stories and their Lessons," was published in 1997 and became a best seller according to its publisher McGraw-Hill.  "More Deep Trouble" covers accidents from the late 1990's through 2011.  The stories in both books were edited by Christopher Cunningham, editor of Sea Kayaker Magazine.
       Two copies are available at the Barnes and Noble in Metairie, LA. and is available from Amazon.