As many of you have heard, a Waukegan Illinois man apparently drown off of Waukegan on Sunday, October 28, 2007. It has been reported that this was his first time out, having just purchased the kayak the week before. Walter Doroba was last seen around 3:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon by another (power) boater. Some time later (around 5:00 p.m.) the same boater saw Walter’s overturned kayak along with a “life jacket” (PFD) floating in the water and notified authorities.
The weather was nice on Sunday, with the air temperature at Chicago’s O’Hara airport reporting a high of 56° F at 1454, with SW winds at 13, gusting to 16 mph. The water temperature on Lake Michigan, in these parts is running in the low 50’s. Waves were forecasted to be in the 1 to 2 foot range on Sunday.
For the prepared and experienced open water kayaker the conditions were benign to say the least. However, for the unprepared and inexperienced, the conditions were deadly!
When submerged in water, we lose heat 25 to 35 times faster than when not in the water. With water temperatures in the 50 to 60 degree range, it is estimated that a person becomes exhausted, or unconsciousness in 1 to 2 hours, with an expected survival time of 1 to 6 hours. In 40 to 50 degree water the exhaustion or unconsciousness comes in 0.5 to 1 hour, and the expected survival time drops to 1 to 3 hours. (There are a lot of variables, but these times are for someone not in “protective” clothing, i.e., wetsuit, drysuit, etc.)
Ironically, the December issue of Sea Kayaker Magazine arrived last week, and contains the story of the death of an experienced (20+ years) kayaker, in circumstances not too terribly different than Doroba’s.
We know the most about the death of Len Goodman, thanks to the article in Sea Kayaker Magazine. Len, 76 years of age, was the president of the California Kayak Friends (CKF), which is an organization of approximately 200 members in southern California. Len is described in the article as being a “conservative paddler” who often “preached” safety. Running late to a group paddle, Len called one of the group’s members and told him not to wait for him, that he would divert from the planned paddle and do a solo one instead.
The weather was warm and sunny, the winds calm in the early morning, but the Santa Ana winds picked up around 9:00 a.m. and brought strong offshore winds in the 20 to 30 kts range, with gusts of 35 to 40 kts. At some point, Len capsized. His only means of recovery was a paddle float reentry as he didn’t have a roll, nor did he have a reentry and roll. His overturned kayak was found about 3.5 miles offshore, with the paddle float inflated on the paddle, and the paddle attached to the kayak. The vessel finding Len’s kayak radioed the Coast Guard and enroute to the scene they found Len floating in the water about 2.5 miles from shore. CPR was performed as the Coast Guard rushed to shore to hand Len over to the EMTs waiting to transport to the hospital. Upon arrival at the hospital Len’s core temperature was 80°F. Continuing CPR, the hospital staff began rewarming him and after 2 hours his core temperature was recorded at 88°F, but still no cardiac activity. The official cause of death was drowning, and the time was listed as being between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.
Although the group that Len paddled with practiced rescues and rolls frequently, Len usually didn’t participate because he chilled easily. Len had taken a class three years earlier that involved a lot of rescue work. At the conclusion of that class, the instructor counseled Len on not paddling alone or in rough conditions until he improved his self rescue abilities. Additionally, Len was advised to get a properly fitting wetsuit (his was too loose and allowed the flushing of water between the suit and the skin). (When I sold wetsuits, people would always complain that they were too tight and wanted the next size – or 2 sizes larger. I’d tell them that if they didn’t feel it, it wouldn’t do them much good.)
Len’s VHF radio had stopped working quite some time ago, and he had not replaced it yet.
Lot’s of lessons to be learned from both of these tragic events.
While Len had lots of experience kayaking, and Walter had little to none (I don’t know if he had ever been in a kayak, or had formal instruction before, just that this was a new kayak), Len didn’t have, and Walter apparently didn’t either, the necessary recovery skills to paddle alone on open water.
Reliable, in good working order, signaling devices are necessary when things do go wrong. There is a high probability that both Len and Walter would have been successfully rescued if they had a VHF radio available to call for assistance. Not to mention flares, smoke, and other signaling devices. I NEVER go on open water without my VHF radio. Regardless of where I’m paddling, I always have my flares (6 of them) with me, along with a strobe (secured to the shoulder of my PFD), signaling mirror and whistle (granted the whistle isn’t much good unless someone is really close by, but it is louder than I can yell). The VHF radio, flares, mirror and whistle are all on my PFD. And, I usually carry my cell phone in a waterproof container in my day hatch, not that I think it will be all that effective while actually in the water.
I always wear my PFD and have it properly secured/tightened. Walter’s was found with his kayak, either he wasn’t wearing it, or he slipped out of it because it was not properly secured, something many people do in favor of a more “relaxed comfortable fit.” I recall one paddler telling me that he once thought he was going to slide right out of his PFD before he could get the straps tightened after capsizing in rather heavy conditions. Again, I NEVER paddle without my PFD on, and I consider myself to be a decent swimmer.
Lastly, I always dress for immersion. I ignore the “rules” that I’ve heard some say, e.g., “if the air + water temperatures are greater than 120 degrees, you’ll be ok without protective clothing.” Think about that, how often do we have 50 degree water and 70 degree air temperatures? Would you want to take a swim without a wetsuit? Personally, I wouldn’t want to without a drysuit!
While I could go on, let me just say Practice, Practice, Practice!!!
Just as I’m posting this, I’ve received a posting from CASKA (Chicago Area Sea Kayak Association) that is on point, and merits passing on. Take a look at Safety Center and pass it on!
Posted: November 6th, 2007 under Safety.