Thursday, December 17, 2009

Another Rec Boat Fatality

On Sunday, November 22nd, while we were paddling around the Cranberry Islands, Monica Estes, 56, launched her Old Town Otter from the public launch at Manset, less than three miles from where we launched. Little else is known about what happened next, but two days later her boat washed ashore, followed a day later by her body. Her life jacket was found inside the kayak.

As is often the case in the death of a solo paddler, we know very little about what happened to her, but we read between the lines of the reports that surfaced. I become morbidly anxious to gather any details I can from what little the newspaper accounts offer, but two significant details stand-out: the type of boat she paddled, and the PFD- stashed inside of the boat instead of worn. There’s no mention of cold water gear or any other safety considerations, which probably translates to lack of all of the above.

We don’t want to be disrespectful to the victim, but we wonder what happened, and we want to prevent it from happening to us or to others. The circumstances are similar to the death of Susan Wakelin off of Deer Isle on September 11, 2006. Wakelin, 65, took a brand-new Old Town Otter out for a short coastal paddle. To her credit, she wore her PFD and left plans with family, who notified the Coast Guard when she didn’t arrive on time. Beyond those precautions though, she wore no cold water paddling gear or a sprayskirt, and carried no other safety gear (VHF radio, flares, cell phone in a waterproof container, etc.).

Old Town’s web site has this to say about the Otter: “Comfortable, stable, lightweight and affordable, the Otter is Old Town's solution for family water fun. Its superior design tracks better and paddles easier than others in its class.” The site makes no claims about where the boat should or should not be used. At just under ten feet long, with a 28.5” beam, the boat is unlikely to be quick, but its beaminess and flat bottom are sure to make the paddler feel stable, as though capsizing just isn’t possible. If it does capsize, the lack of any built-in floatation makes it unlikely that a solo paddler would be able to reenter the boat. Most likely, one end fills with water, while the other end points straight up out of the water. For maybe $100, the boat could be equipped with bow and stern flotation bags, but the struggling paddler would still be dealing with a large volume of water in the boat.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the Otter and other similar rec boats, is that it is built and marketed to people who want to get on the water easily, with little commitment to learning skills or even basic safety precautions. I’m guessing that the salespeople don’t disabuse them of this approach. The boat is priced at just over $300, so the financial commitment to having proper gear is also de-emphasized. One could easily spend more on basic safety gear than on the boat. The sense that the boat is so flat-bottomed and beamy gives buyers the idea that it will never capsize, especially if they plan on staying close to shore and returning should the conditions turn rough.

When we launched that morning, the seas were fairly rough, even for experienced paddlers. Winds were probably in the 15-knot range. There were waves... all coming out of the north, while the incoming tide came from the south: a recipe for bumpy conditions. For us, this was fun, but we took it seriously. We plotted a course that took us first into the wind until we neared the shore of Great Cranberry Island, then let it take us downwind. Contrary to the newspaper’s claim, and the weather forecast, the conditions became calmer in the afternoon. Those photos of us (in the last blog entry) in fairly calm seas are in the middle of the crossing back to Seawall. The shots of us surfing, are taken within a few hundred feet from shore, so paddling close to shore (as rec boat enthusiasts inevitably plan on doing) is not always the calmest, safest place to be. Those waves would have easily capsized a rec boat.

How could the deceased paddler have stacked the odds more in her favor? For less than $100 she could have carried a VHF radio. For under $30 she could have carried flares. And she would have carried both of them in her PFD... which of course she should have been wearing. The newspaper didn’t say what clothing she wore, but for $150 she might have worn neoprene or a wetsuit, which could have bought her some time in the water before hypothermia disabled her. Even in the summertime, the water in this area rarely rises ten degrees higher than the water in which she died. I have no idea what skills she possessed, but anyone who paddles should learn rescue techniques, and anyone who paddles alone should learn self-rescue techniques.

In addition to the circumstantial similarities of the two deaths, they each might have been prevented had even one safety measure been followed. And perhaps more to the point, once anything went wrong, there was little hope for either victim, since neither had any options for helping themselves.

Maybe it’s really pretty simple: plan on capsizing. Some people assume that they will eventually end up in the water, while others assume that they won’t. The ones who prepare for capsize stand a better chance of survival than those who don’t.

To read the Bar Harbor Times article, click here.

1 comment:

John Huth said...

This is a sad but all too common tragedy. Kayaks like that are best suited for summer jaunts on inland lakes and ponds, not taking off from Manset in November.

I've kayaked around the Cranberries many times - and although for an experienced kayaker with the right equipment, it's great fun, in a small Otter, without any gear, it's a recipe for disaster.