April 06, 2020

Preparation for inevitable capsize key to survival

By most accounts, Sept. 11 would have been a good day to launch a kayak and do some coastal exploration. The weather forecast called for mostly sunny weather with temperatures in the 60s and northeast winds around 10-15 mph.

For the family of Susan Wakelin, 65, of Rumson, N.J., who launched her 9-foot Old Town Otter kayak on Sylvester Cove near the western end of Deer Isle, it was the worst of days. An afternoon paddle turned to tragedy when Marine Patrol officers pulled her lifeless body from the chilly waters of eastern Penobscot Bay about 3:45 a.m. Tuesday, some 12 hours after she was last seen paddling her small kayak.

Wakelin, visiting for the summer, had left a plan of her route with relatives who told authorities she had intended to paddle from Sylvester Cove northwest along the shore to Dunham Point on the western coast of Deer Isle, a distance of about a mile. She was last seen at about 3 p.m. Family members described her as a novice paddler.

When she failed to arrive at her mother’s house for a meal at 6 p.m., the family began a search of the shoreline and they were joined by a crew from the Deer Isle Fire Department. The Coast Guard was notified at 8:30 p.m. and a search was initiated – a small boat from Rockland was dispatched, as was a helicopter from Cape Cod. In addition, the Maine Marine Patrol dispatched a boat, the 35-foot Dirigo, with two officers, Troy Dow and Colin MacDonald.

Afternoon weather conditions were favorable. Winds were 10-15 mph out of the northeast and diminishing until around 5 p.m. to about 5 mph. Later it picked up a little to around 10 mph. Waves were running about 2 feet. The tide was high at about 2:45 p.m., so it would have been ebbing until around 9 p.m. Water temperature was in the 55-57 degree range and the air was about the same temperature.

About 3 a.m. the helicopter crew spotted Wakelin’s overturned kayak some 3 miles southwest of Dunham Point in open water between North Haven and Stinson Point, Deer Isle, likely pushed there by the outgoing tide and northeast wind.

A short time later, at 3:45, Wakelin’s body was recovered (latitude 44.10.33, longitude 68.45.56). She was barefoot, wearing a personal flotation device (lifejacket), windbreaker, and nylon shorts, according to Lt. Alan Talbot of the Marine Patrol. Preliminary cause of death, he said, was drowning, although the final medical examiner’s report is not yet available.

Her open cockpit recreation boat, which still had showroom stickers on it, had no other safety equipment such as a paddle float, stirrup, pump, signaling devices, VHF radio, cell phone, or extra, dry clothing, Talbot said.

More than likely it will never be known exactly what happened that day or why the tiny kayak overturned, spilling Wakelin into the chilly ocean waters. Paddlers know there are numerous ways a kayak can flip – a missed or sliced paddling stroke, leaning over the edge to peer into the water, a lean in the wrong direction at the wrong time, a stiffened body response to an oncoming wave instead of relaxing and letting the wave slide by under the boat and absorbing it with one’s hips.

A capsize is something any paddler will experience at one time or another. It’s how we respond to a capsize – our self-rescue skills – and the proper clothing and equipment that will help determine the outcome.

Thinking about your outing ahead of time and planning for it can make your trip safer. Check the weather, the tide, tidal currents, the time of high tide, the type of coast or shoreline you’ll be paddling near. Are there places to get out easily or is the coast rocky and steep? Are there camps or homes in the area where you can seek shelter or assistance? Do you have the proper clothing and gear? Go over your checklists. Have you told others where you’ll be and when you plan to be back and who to call if you don’t return on schedule? Ideally, do you have a friend to paddle with, one who knows self- and partner rescues?

Without being critical of the victim in this case, let’s look at what might have been done to prevent the tragedy, starting with the boat. Not all boats are appropriate for all situations. The Old Town Otter is described as “comfortable, stable, lightweight and easy to paddle.” Its dimensions are: length 9-foot-6; width 28.5 inches; cockpit 19″x38″; depth 12″; weight 39 pounds; capacity 225 pounds.

On the REI Web site, it says this boat’s “hull shape is stable, responsive and easy to maneuver – great for exploring flat water ponds, lakes and even slow rivers and gently rolling waves.”

While one could argue that this boat is relatively stable, I would say it is too stubby and wide to be a good ocean boat. And I can say from experience, it takes a lot of skill to perform a self-rescue in this boat even in a warm swimming pool. The open cockpit and minimal flotation make it a chore in flat water. Imagine what it would be like in cold ocean waves.

A good sea kayak, say 16 feet or longer and 21-24 inches wide, with bulkheads will float you even when you re-enter the cockpit awash with water. A spray skirt will prevent waves from washing into the cockpit as you use your bilge pump to pump out the water and dry the cockpit. Your paddle float will help you to get back into your boat and act as an outrigger to stabilize your boat as you pump it out.

If and when you find yourself capsized, your chances of survival are better if you’re dressed appropriately for the water temperature and immersion. The colder the water, the more protection you need. At 55 degrees, the ocean can sap you of your strength and coordination in 15 minutes or less. The bottom line is that you lose the ability to rescue yourself after a relatively short time.

A dry suit or paddling jacket and pants or wet suit and gloves will extend that time you may need to perform a self-rescue. If you do not have self-rescue skills, learn them before venturing out on water cooler than tepid.

Should you capsize and self successfully perform a self-rescue, it may be necessary to change out of your wet clothes. A dry suit, as its name implies, will keep you dry, but typical splash wear or a wet suit will leave you wet and susceptible to evaporative cooling. A dry base layer and wind protection will go a long way in staving off hypothermia. Get to shore, get out of the wind, and change into dry clothes. A warm drink will help the reheating process.

Say you find yourself in a situation where you are unable to get back into the boat. What next? You know you don’t have that much time. Here’s where a VHF radio can become a lifesaver. Don’t wait until you can’t push the button to talk. Put out a distress call (May Day, May Day, May Day!) on Channel 16. Any boater on the water will be able to monitor your call for help, and the Coast Guard will swing into action. Be ready to tell them as precisely as possible where you are located. Anything you can do to help them locate you will improve your chances of survival. Unless you capsize in front of a Coast Guard station, response times can be lengthy – you could be in the water an hour or more. Are you properly dressed? Can you get atop your boat, out of the water, or better yet back into it?

You may be able to summon someone by cell phone, but you best hope that they’re home when you call and that you’ve got a cell signal.

When you leave a float plan with someone, impress it upon them that if you do not check in at the appointed hour, he or she should call the Coast Guard and report you overdue. The longer the delay in starting the search, the lower your chances are of being found safe and sound.

Nothing will guarantee you won’t get into a fix, but your skills and preparedness will go a long way to get you out of trouble. Take a clinic to learn partner and self-rescue skills and practice, practice, practice.

Annual ski sale Oct. 21

Carolyn Eaton, who handles publicity for the Penobscot Valley Ski Club, dropped me a line the other day to remind you about the 36th annual ski and snowboard equipment sale from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Bangor Armory on Maine Street in Bangor (just south of the Paul Bunyan statue).

The sale is a great place to pick up new and used equipment, including cross country and downhill skis, boots, bindings, poles, ski wear, helmets, and snowboards, at affordable prices.

In addition to good buys on equipment, you get a chance to talk to other enthusiasts and vendors about your favorite winter sport.

The profits go back to the community, Eaton said, to support the club’s programs such as Learn-to-Ski, Racing Development Program, Great Caribou Bog Race, Nordic events, and discounted ski trips to Quebec, Sugarloaf, and Sunday River.

PVSC supports ski-related charities and encourages Maine families to get outside to enjoy the snow. Monthly meetings are held on Tuesday nights. New members are always welcome and they can sign up at the sale. For membership information, call Cindy Dunlap at 866-3504. For ski sale information, call Dave Gauvin at 989-1709.

Jeff Strout’s column on outdoor recreation is published each Saturday. He can be reached at 990-8202 or by e-mail at jstrout@bangordailynews.net.

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