Be Careful Out There and Stay Afloat

Follow these tips to stay safe during paddling season. // Photography by Howard Meyerson
Paddling Lake Michigan

Maybe it’s because I paddle, maybe because I follow such things, but it’s that time of year, and I am reminded of a friend who tragically died some years ago after his kayak capsized on Lake Michigan with no immediate rescue possible. With summer upon us, I wonder how many headlines we will see this year about paddlers getting in trouble. Those headlines have been appearing more frequently in recent years.

“Any fatality is too many,” said Jonathan Ahlbrand, a division chief within the National Training Directorate of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. “But 2016 was a shocker. There were 12 deaths (in Michigan) in 2012. In 2016, that was 38, a 137.2 percent increase. A lot of that involved paddle sports.” Nationally, there were 701 deaths from boating and paddling, a 12 percent increase from 2015.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s 2017 accident statistic report hasn’t been released as of this writing, but Ahlbrand and others are aware of the upward trend. The 2016 report said:

  • Where cause of death was known, 80 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned.
  • Eight out of every 10 boaters who drowned were using vessels less than 21 feet in length.
  • Where data was known, the vessel types with the highest percentage of deaths were open motorboats (47 percent), kayaks (13 percent) and canoes (9 percent).

Add in paddleboards and the paddlesport death toll climbed to 29 percent, according to Ahlbrand, who added: “On average every year, 85 percent of the fatalities are due to people not wearing lifejackets.”

Go to any inland lake, Great Lakes shoreline or river and this becomes apparent. Paddlers enjoying the sun and water have their feet on the deck getting a tan. Look closely, and you often see no lifejacket.

Why the trend is going up has, in part, to do with the popularity of kayaking. More people are participating but without the benefit of good advice and training. They may underestimate the risks of rough water and are not prepared.

Many purchase inexpensive kayaks with no flotation or sealed bulkheads that keep the kayak afloat if it capsizes. Often, they are not informed that it will sink, or that a cockpit spray skirt will keep water out, and a hand pump is important for bailing water once swamped. They know nothing of how to re-enter a kayak after a capsize, or the proper way to dress for immersion in cold water.

Instead, at critical moments, they flounder and the kayak disappears.

“Recreational kayaks (wide, open and inexpensive) have no place on the Great Lakes,” Ahlbrand said, adding that trouble can occur on warmer, inland waters, too. “I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people on Lake Lansing with no floatation in their boats. My advice to them is put foam in the bow, even an 88-cent beach ball.”

Ahlbrand spoke this spring to a packed room full of paddlers at the annual Quiet Water Symposium held on the MSU campus. He spoke about cold water immersion and the short survival window paddlers have if they tip over.

“If you (capsize) in cold water, the shock of it causes us to gasp,” he said. “And if you go underwater and gasp, it’s the only gasp you will take. You have about one minute to get your breathing under control.”

Depending on water temperature, those who go in without a lifejacket can survive about 10 minutes before their ability to move is impaired, he said. That increases to an hour with a lifejacket on. Cold shock occurs in three to five minutes. Swim failure occurs between three and 30 minutes. Hypothermia begins to set in at 30 minutes. Hence, one of the cardinal rules for paddlers is always dress for immersion, even when the air temperature is warm.

My friend was underdressed for the water temperatures a mile offshore of a remote stretch of northern Lake Michigan, but that wasn’t his only problem. His boat was taking on water due to a hole in the hull and started sinking. He had no repair kit. Sadly, his wetsuit was stowed in the aft compartment where it would do no good. His paddling partner attempted to paddle him to shore on his aft deck, then hanging on to the bow, but it was too rough, and their progress was slow. My friend finally succumbed and let go. It was hours before summoned authorities found him.

Search Google for “Michigan kayaking accidents,” and the news reports are sobering. But there are lessons to be learned from them, the most important of which are: Dress for immersion and always wear a lifejacket.

Kayaking Synopsiums

Learning to Kayak

Sea kayaking symposiums, with on-water clinics, are a great place to learn about kayaking and the skills, techniques and gear necessary to safely negotiate open waters. Here are three scheduled in Michigan every year.

West Michigan Coastal Kayakers Association Symposium, Camp Pendalouan, Montague,

Port Austin Kayak Symposium, Bird Creek Park, Port Austin,

Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium, Grand Marais,

Howard Meyerson is the managing editor for Michigan BLUE Magazine.

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